Teaching cultural literacies with social software

Making my way through the dozens of emails I get in a day (GeekyMom you win…I think if I got as many emails as you do I think I would just cry), I found this wee gem from a language textbook publishing company:

Dear Professor:

We at (name of publisher) are very excited to extend to you an invitation to put your cultural expertise to work in a meaningful way. We are looking for professors to serve as culture experts on a forthcoming textbook. You will be asked to review text chapters related to your home country (or adopted country!) and comment on the cultural richness and authenticity as well give suggestions for improvement. You will be compensated for your contribution and will receive special reviewer credit upon publication.

If you are interested, please click on the “Participate Now” button to the right. Space is limited to 8 experts per country.

Oh my. One of the reasons I have adopted social software is that if my students need to know about something related to a specific culture, they now have the tools and the means to speak or correspond with people from those places…and as a result they can see that there are many, many sides to a culture… not just something that was written by 8 “experts” who claim knowledge of one place.

It is these “cultural” chapter notes that drove me to blogs in the first place. Here’s why: I am a gringa through and through. I was born in Boston (a place where Latin Americans tell me the “purest English” is spoken 🙂 ). Yes I lived in Latin America but that was well before any of my current students were born. (Insert large sigh). I can speak the language but there are current events or the nuances of cultures I simply do not know. I am as as distant from reality as the cultural vignettes that some (not all) of the textbook companies produce. And yet, my students are trained (through years of teacher-centric education) to look to me for “the truth” about, oh, the current political situation in Venezuela, for example.

We need to liberate ourselves from the notion that all learning has to happen in the classroom, with a textbook and with the teacher at the helm. When I did the deep learning exercise with my students, we came to remarkable conclusion: most of their most memorable learning experiences happened outside of the formal academic structure.

Does that mean that we should dispense with classroom teaching? Absolutely not. But what it does mean is that we need to acknowledge that the classroom and the academic calendar restrict us in many many ways. We simply cannot get it all done in 150 minutes per week, and assigning more workbook exercises won’t help. We need to find more time —but meaningful time– for our students to engage with the subject matter.

Through tools such as blogs and Skype, my students found some of their answers. Here are a few examples:

We saw the movie Secuestro Express in class about kidnappings in Venezuela. My students wanted to know if this was a sensationalized view of the Venezuelan reality or not. So they blogged about it…and lo and behold they received responses.

This particular commenter made it a point to visit many of my students’ blogs and leave detailed comments about her perspective on the situation. My students then wanted to know if there was a way to hear another side of her (quite passionate and moving) argument in order to make some comparisons…and once again, Skype connected us with an individual in Venezuela who had a very different opinion about how her country was being led.

Here is something that speaks to the connections these blogs can facilitate: I was cleaning out the spam comments from last year’s blogs and found this comment that arrived after the semester was over. The story this man tells is painful, it is gripping, and yes, it is quite unlike anything we would have found in a textbook….

Did we take these opinions from these native speakers as “the Gospel?” Absolutely not. But hearing and reading other voices, MANY other voices, in the target language provided two tangible results: 1) my students had to stretch and push their language skills to communicate, question, collaborate with these people, something every good conversation class should provide, 2) it provided my class with a variety of perspectives that neither their teacher nor the textbook could have ever provided them, and 3) it gave them much more time on the task in a meaningful and sometimes moving way (If you still have doubts, check out Evie’s extraordinary presentation about her equally extraordinary work in my class at the ELI for some real goosebumps)

To paraphrase what they say on HGTV, as teachers we are limited in our ability to do our jobs well by three things: by time, money, and by our imagination. Good social software is free or inexpensive, it provides an ability for the language to be used in and out and after the classroom, and it opens up learning to unimaginable and extraordinary possibilities.

More to come on what this semester’s students are doing with these tools to help them answer their questions.

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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