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The Curation of Culture

March 27, 2016

Inspired by Maris Hawkins and feedback from all of you, I am now finding and summarizing news stories from the Spanish speaking world and publishing them every week in El mundo en tus manos. As it turns out, this project is a bit overwhelming! Good and valuable…but overwhelming– and not just because of the amount of work to be done.

We curate the content we present to our students

Thousands of news stories are published every hour: political stories, human interest stories, sports stories, entertainment stories….stories about anything and everything that you can imagine. Yet I’ve committed to summarizing five—JUST FIVE—of them each week for your students to read. It’s all that my time allows and it provides just enough material for you and your students to work through without being excessive (10 minutes of free reading or 1 story per day to work with in class). Selecting five news stories out thousands? That requires MAJOR curation.

How to choose what current events to focus on in class?

Perhaps I should not overthink it—but when cultural understanding hangs in the balance, how can I not? I suppose that perhaps that is overdramatic... or is it?

Maybe the cultural content that we choose to share with our students in our classes will shape their lifelong understanding of the target culture. Maybe, just maybe, the content that we share and the way in which we approach it will shape their lifelong understanding of what it means to be a citizen of their own country, a citizen of another country, and a citizen of the world.

A story always has multiple sides–multiple perspectives.

Most of you are probably aware that President Obama visited Cuba this last week. An historic visit, it was the first time since 1928 that a sitting US President visited the island. Obama restored diplomatic relations in 2014 after more than 50 years, so this trip was a really, really big deal.

Obama is a bit of a celebrity to many Cubans, but the trip was not without controversy. After 50 years of being told that the US is bad, that its leaders are bad, that its products are bad…what are Cubans to think when all of a sudden the discourse changes and now we are good; it is all good? How can they ever believe again what their government is telling them when they have witnessed such a dramatic switch?

Following his visit to Cuba, Obama made a less-widely-covered trip to Argentina. His trip coincided with the 40th anniversary of the coup d’état that marked the beginning of The Dirty War. To commemorate that fateful day, thousands of people—including President Obama—joined with Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in their weekly march of remembrance and protest for the disappeared.

Because the U.S. had supported the overthrow that started the war, Barack Obama’s participation in the march and his speech apologizing for our participation were healing…or were they? Certainly they were to some, but many were furious that his trip was planned for this week. In fact, the president of Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (among others) did not want President Obama to participate, seeing it as an intrusion on a sacred day, a slap in the face of sorts.

You see, culture is complicated.

Which cultural perspectives should we share in language classes?

As we strive to teach our students to be citizens of the world, to be globally competent, we must choose what we share and how we share it. We could share that President Obama’s oldest daughter, Malia, acted as his translator in Cuba. Wow! That is pretty stinking cool, right? Or we could share that while in Argentina, he danced the tango at a state dinner! The dude’s got style, am I right?

We can share those things, sure. They are feel good stories that…well…make us feel good! A smattering of current events, a smattering of culture, and voila! A fun lesson. But is that where we should leave it? I daresay not.

Use hypothesis refinement to explore authentic perspectives

One planning model that I have used with great results in the past when approaching culture is described in this post on hypothesis refinement, and it would work well with either one of the stories shared above.

Cultural Triangles

Last summer at iFLT, Cari Johnson shared a second, incredibly insightful model with me that we can use when presenting cultural content to our students in order to build their global competency. Since then, I’ve shared it at AFLA and ACTFL in my #BringingCultureBack presentation. You begin by looking completing the “cultural triangle” for whatever you want to teach: in the case of Obama’s visit to Argentina, it might be:

  • PRACTICE: Obama participates in the march
  • PRODUCT: Obama’s speech
  • PERSPECTIVES: “At last! The US is taking responsibility and showing remorse for what they did” or “This is a slap in the face! Hasn’t the US done enough?”

In just this first step, you can see how taking the time to fill out the triangle as you plan the lesson will help you to move past surface-level, stereotypical discussions, especially as you consider the different perspectives that Argentinians might have about the same practice and product.

Identify cultural connections

From there, you can reflect each triangle out to the sides and examine how we view the practice, product, and perspective.

  • MY PRACTICES: What are some significant marches that have taken place in the US in recent years? What was their purpose?
  • MY PERSPECTIVE: How is Obama's participation in the march (the practice) viewed in the US? What is OUR cultural perspective on that practice?
  • MY PRODUCTS: What products in our culture (new stories, for example) are connected to that practice? By asking these questions and reflecting on your own answers, you will be well prepared to lead a discussion in class that will move students forward on their journey to global competency.

What kinds of culture should I teach to my students?

So yes, read the stories about where Hondurans spend their spring breaks and how Pau Donés has finished his cancer treatment and how a lady in Argentina feeds 139 kids, four days a week out of her kitchen. Watch the Obamas dance the tango! Share those feel-good stories that inspire and excite your students and show them that the humans in other places are not so different than the humans in our place.

But also spend some time getting messy. Talk about the things that aren’t fun, that aren’t pretty; things that are hard, that are complicated, that are confusing. Because at the end of the day, that’s culture—that’s who we are. We are complicated. Our culture is beautiful, and it is ugly. We’ve done amazing things and we’ve done horrible things, and we are still working through all of it, every day.

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