Current Events in the Language Classroom

What is our obligation as teachers, even more specifically as language teachers, to bring current events into our classrooms? Over the last few weeks, my kids and I have been on holiday break. During that time, we experienced among other things 1) an ongoing but increasingly dangerous pandemic that has kept us confined to our home since March, 2) the Nashville bombing on Christmas (literally close to home as we live in the same city), and 3) a violent mob in our Capitol which we watched unfold in real time. Added onto a whole year of protests for racial justice, current events have been a lot. I know the effect these events had had on me and my family, just as I know they are likely causing students pain, stress, and/or trauma.

Following the horrors of January 6th, I saw many of my language teacher acquaintances brainstorm on social media how they might help students navigate these unsettling events in their language classrooms, and also saw folks sharing ideas and resources for how they planned to approach teaching during this crisis.

https://twitter.com/jaybeekay518/status/1346915178915508235?s=20

The replies to this tweet, which you can find here, give many good ideas that might work for you in your classroom. Additionally, the teaching center where I work has a wonderful teaching guide called “Teaching in Times of Crisis” that you might find useful in navigating questions of how to bring current events into the classroom.

There are many reasons teachers might not bring current events into the classroom. Do any of these statements ring a bell for you?

“I don’t know what to do.”

In her tweet, Julia expresses that she wants to act, but doesn’t know what to do. This is extremely common. We were trained to teach languages, and very few of us have had extensive professional preparation for teaching in a crisis. To be perfectly honest, teaching languages is complex enough without a pandemic, insurrection, bombing, or other crisis in the mix. We want to act. But what should we do?? My Twitter teacher network brainstormed and relied on each other. I know colleagues in my own institution are also collaborating on classroom responses. Together is a great way to move forward.

“I don’t have the skills or resources to address this.”

Another common response is to recognize the fact that as language teachers, we do not have all the skills, knowledge, or resources we need to effectively help students through this crisis. We are not political analysts or FBI agents or trained therapists and counselors (well not usually). We are language teachers. There will be questions we cannot answer. Concerns we cannot address. Emotions that may boil to the surface. This a very healthy, self-aware response, and a good starting point for action.

“My community’s politics make this complicated for me.”

I get this. It can be hard to have a productive conversation with people who vehemently disagree with you, and it can be outright counterproductive to engage in dialog when people are hateful or violent. As teachers, many of us also have professional positions that feel precarious. Over the years, I’ve given many talks on critical pedagogy and social justice in language teaching. So many K-12 teachers have come up to me after those talks to say that parents and school administrators in their school districts will not accept any talk of social justice or diverse representation, and they fear for their jobs if they talk about current events. Graduate student and adjunct instructors at the college level have told me that they worry about their student evaluations and the role those may play in their future employability. These conversations are not easy, and for some of us, they may not be safe.

Even if you identify strongly with one of the above statements, I believe that there are ways language teachers can and should include current events in our classrooms. In fact, I might even say that if you feel no trepidation about dealing with current events in the classroom, it is a good idea to start with those three statements and evaluate the landscape before you jump in. What can you do? What additional skills or resources do you need to do that well? What responses to your crisis-related activities can you expect from stakeholders and how will you prevent or respond to negative reactions?

Based on my own teaching experiences, my experiences working with expert colleagues, and in part based on a framework from my hopefully-soon-to-be-published book on Problem-Based Learning that I co-authored with Dr. Claire Knowles, I have recommendations for teachers who want to incorporate current events into their classrooms.

1.) Do something.

In the CFT teaching guide Teaching in Times of Crisis, the author cites a 2007 study by Huston and DiPietro that makes it clear that students want faculty to do something. Failing to acknowledge current events does not keep students from thinking about them and does not keep those events from affecting your classroom.

2.) Start BEFORE the crisis hits.

At this point, it may seem like this advice is tantamount to closing the barn door after the horses are gone. After all, the crisis is here. The crisis has been here. The crisis has been unrelenting for quite some time, actually.

I am planning my spring classes now. I do plan to incorporate some activities related to the current moment, but I am particularly leaving room to respond to the next crisis that I do not yet know about. There will always be another crisis. You’ll notice that the CFT teaching guide I referred to earlier was originally published in 2001. We also have a teaching guide related to teaching during a health crisis or epidemic that was originally written during the H1N1 crisis and has been updated for more recent events. Plan with that reality in mind.

Start your year or semester planning with the idea that current events will keep happening, and that you will want to respond to them. Set the stage for crisis response with your everyday, routine pedagogical choices. Here is my three-pronged approach:

Routine reflection. I have a set of written reflection/thinking activities that I always incorporate in my classes. They are part of my weekly routine. Every single week, one of the questions students can choose to answer is, “Did anything happen outside of class that you connected to something we have done in class?” This allows students to make any connections they need to. When current events demand attention, I already have a reflection mechanism in place that is part of our weekly routine. I don’t have to do anything outside of the ordinary, but I do have the option of changing or adding questions when I need to.

-Biographies and authentic resources. My Spanish students get used to learning about specific real people from real communities. We learn about real people, we hear their ideas, we try to understand their perspectives. Often in the first two semesters these are famous people or people who represent specific communities of Spanish-speakers. I use music videos, social media posts, news clips, TV and film clips, really any kind of resource that will both provide students with an authentic glimpse into the target culture and ALSO provide us with a topic for further language development and intercultural understanding. When a crisis happens, I work to find a clip, biography, or resource that relates to the moment. My students are already used to seeing very current people, places, and ideas pop up as learning resources, so this feels natural rather than seeming like an attempt to force relevancy.

-Outside of class conversation. I know that K-12 teachers work in a very different space than I do, but for me as a college instructor, I make space for students to hang out with me. I show up an hour early to class and hang out in the hallway outside my room, often with my lunch in hand, so I can chat with my students in English. If students don’t want to chat, I open my laptop and get to work after I finish my lunch. By midterms, I always have a group to hang out with. They tell me about their other classes, we practice a little Spanish, we talk a lot of English. It is wonderful. Also, I shamelessly bribe my students into coming to office hours with offers of food and coffee. I want my class to be almost entirely in the target language, but I also want to be a safe person for them. I want to get to know them. And if they are struggling with current events, I hope I am laying the foundation to be one of the people they trust with that struggle.

3.) Handle your own business outside of class.

Whether we are teaching children or adults, we must remember that students are not there to help us process current events. Our classes are meant to help our students make sense of the world. Keep your eye on that prize. It’s wonderful when instructors thoughtfully bring their own experiences into the classroom and allow students to do the same. I also value when teachers are vulnerable about their own pain and allow students to be vulnerable as well. However, no matter how close-knit a community we cultivate in our classrooms, our students need us to be the teacher. We don’t have to know all the answers. We don’t have to have all our inner complexity resolved. But, we do have to remember that institutional structures and power dynamics of the classroom can only accommodate so much. Our students did not sign up for the role of listening to our inner monologues or becoming our support group in times of crisis.

On the other hand, the trauma you may be experiencing is also worthy of being taken seriously, and your mental health requires you to be attentive to what is happening with you. If you are having trouble processing current events, if you need someone to help you work through complex feelings and responses, please know that the most gentle, loving thing you can do for yourself is to seek out peer support and professional guidance. Just as professional therapists often have their own therapists who help them work out their own issues, teachers who tackle the hard questions in their classroom need a supportive family, peer group, professional network (like #langchat on Twitter), and/or trained counselor to make sense of the world for themselves.

4.) Current events are not a distraction; they are the whole point.

Finally, I want to encourage you to see responding to current events as not just something we do to comfort and provide community for our students, but rather as the actual whole point of all this. Our educational systems are (should be? are? hard to say) set up with the express purpose of guiding people in their development so they become more thoughtful and more productive citizens. Highly developed people can make sense of what happens in the world, build relationships and coalitions in all areas of life, and bring their strengths to every crisis our society will face. Classrooms prepare students with the knowledge, skills, and mindsets they will need to face future crises we haven’t even imagined yet.

More to the point, language classrooms are critical to the purpose of citizenship. My Spanish students should not just be listening to catchy music, conjugating some verbs, or telling silly stories. Those things in and of themselves are not bad, they just cannot be the whole point. My course must be a lens that students can use to critically engage with current events in the world. In order for that to be true, I have to build my course from the beginning to engage with the world, not just wedge special activities into my curriculum in times of crisis.

Examples of Classroom Practice

Although, as a language teacher, I tend to focus on my own discipline to the exclusion of others, I was reminded this week that a liberal arts education provides students with a range of useful lenses through which to view current events. My center director, Dr. Derek Bruff, who is faculty in the math department, tweeted about how his cryptography course will include events around the ongoing threat of insurrection and provide students with the background and skills they need to understand current events through a cryptography perspective. Derek knows there will always be current events related to cryptography, and he makes room for that in his syllabus.

Shortly after Derek tweeted his intentions, another one of my brilliant colleagues, Dr. Ransford Pinto, who teaches international governance replied with his intentions to talk about how insurrection affects governance.

I am teaching a second language acquisition course this spring, and my intention is to spend some time discussing how new words, expressions, and ideas become part of our collective lexicon or come to have different meanings in response to current events, then use that discussion as a starting place for a discussion about the research on vocabulary acquisition. As an example, I plan to use the results of a Google search for the question, “Is it a coup?” As you can see in the image below, the first three results all give different answers to that questions. Different publications and pundits give different definitions and see the events in different ways. What does that tell us about the word “coup” and our collective use of it? What influences word choice in these instances?

I believe that if one student finds themselves in all three of our courses, Derek’s on cryptography, Ransford’s on international governance, and mine on second language acquisition, they will come away from the semester with a sense that they can bring all of their knowledge and skills to bear on the most pressing issues of our times. Responding to a crisis sometimes means giving students room to grieve, but it more often means showing students that our disciplines are key to addressing big challenges.

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I realize that different language teachers have different approaches to teaching languages, and even more importantly maybe, we have different goals for our students that drive our choice of practices. So, here are some ideas for how the principles I have outlined above might play out in different contexts. For every one of these ideas, I want to emphasize that you shouldn’t break out a brand new activity just for “crisis-mode” if you are not also doing that activity as part of your regular practice. If you ask students to do reflective journals or sentence builder activities in response to a crisis, those should ALREADY be part of your classroom routine as I discussed earlier in this post, not last minute additions. I will also note that many of us, myself included, have goals for our classrooms that include more than one of the categories below. Just means we have more choices!

If community in the sense of developing a meaningful interpersonal relationships among students is your primary goal and you want students to connect with each other in the target language…

…you might consider a range of activities that help students process their own thoughts and feelings, build strong bonds with their classmates, and learn to have difficult conversations in a safe space. The center where I work has a teaching guide on “Difficult Dialogs” that you might find useful in thinking through what strategies you will use. Those may include personal journaling, using English or the common institutional language to engage in deeper conversations than is possible in the target language, creating community norms around interpersonal interactions, and others.

A note to go carefully down this path: Learn from experts. If current events warrant a conversation about race, make sure to do some homework about how to do that well, perhaps by reading the book Courageous Conversations or listening to this Cult of Pedagogy podcast with Jose Vilson. There are so many resources out there to help. If you take on the role of facilitator, come prepared to do that well and to ensure students also take their roles seriously.

If community in the sense of students developing understanding of and respect for target language communities is your primary goal and you want students to develop intercultural communicative competence…

…you may want to provide students with examples of how different target language communities are dealing with or talking about the same or a similar crisis. I saw a great example of this the other day on Twitter. Rich Madel compiled images of the front pages of various Spanish language newspapers around the world and shared them with teachers.

https://twitter.com/SrMadel/status/1347153439982288896?s=20

A note to go carefully down this path: When done superficially or in broad strokes, a compare-and-contrast model to cultural awareness can end up reinforcing existing stereotypes. Whenever possible, drill down from the broad, general, or national level to individuals and local communities. See the world through other people’s eyes rather than generalizing based on majority experiences, and make sure to represent experiences from across the community, not just the dominant or most visible aspects of a community.

If communication in the sense of student language production and self-expression is your primary goal and you want students to be able to talk in the target language…

…you might consider putting together a conversation starter, which I have also heard called a “chat mat” or a “sentence builder”. Here is a great example of a chat mat I saw recently for early language learners, and here is a blog post from Gianfranco Conti on developing and using sentence builders. First, you have to decide ahead of time what kind of conversation would be appropriate to your students’ language proficiency and what topics would be appropriate to the moment. Then, you create the conversation starter document to provide them with the chunks of language they will need to express themselves.

A note to go carefully down this path: Some conversations are too complex to have in a second language, especially with lower level students. Some conversations are likely to spark strong emotional responses that will prevent meaningful learning and maybe even cause harm. Take time to really think about what questions and answers would be most meaningful and feasible. If what you want is for students to have space to grieve, a communicative activity with the pressure of group dynamics and having to use a new language will not help you meet that goal. If you want students to describe facts around the context of the crisis, describe their own actions and emotions, or talk about how to resolve the crisis, those topics are probably possible even for novices.

If communication in the sense of building mental representations of language is your primary goal and you want students to be able to comprehend input in the target language…

…you might consider including a weekly or biweekly routine in your classroom of reading and doing activities with news articles in the target language. For advanced learners, you can use authentic resources. For lower level learners, you can write your own short comprehensible texts based on current events or you can rely on texts written by others (such as Mundo en tus Manos for Spanish teachers). Every news article doesn’t have to be about a crisis! Generally speaking, the news includes celebrity news, weather reports, world bulletins, as well as perspectives on important current issues that affect us all. Developing a routine of reading and talking about the news does not mean that you have to talk about the recent events at the Capitol, for example, but it does give you an opportunity to do so when you need to while also maintaining the predictability of your classroom and moving students towards your language goals for them.

A note to go carefully down this path: If you do have students who have been deeply or personally affected by world events, reading about them might prove to be overwhelming for them. Consider making room for students to opt-out or journal in their L1 or otherwise express what they need to in addition to this sort of activity.

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If you have activities or approaches you have taken this week or in the past to help students make sense of current events in the language classroom, I would love to hear from you! Please post comments, questions, and resources in the replies or on social media so we can continue this conversation!

By staceymargarita

I am a language teacher and researcher. In any given term, I may teach beginning or intermediate Spanish courses, English for international students, and foreign language teaching methods for teacher candidates and future faculty. As a teacher, I consider myself pragmatic (not married to any particular approach), oriented towards critical pedagogies in particular, a technophile, and always on the prowl for new ideas.

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