By Kaitlin E. Thomas, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Spanish, Norwich University
With national protests and unrest occurring simultaneous to the outbreak of the global pandemic COVID-19, 2020 was an exercise in maintaining pre-pandemic curricular momentum while adequately and appropriately addressing the tumult taking place outside of the classroom. Long has it been since so many crises, historic moments, and socio-political division converged into such a short span of time.
I have in the past incorporated snippets of real-time news in my Spanish language classes using bite-size segments of NewsinSlow. It is great for vocabulary development, tuning students to the musicality of spoken Spanish, and is a gateway to broach topics like accent variability and regionalisms between Spain and Latin America. Still, despite the undeniable usefulness of the content and the enthusiasm with which students take to activities based on real-time events, I hesitated to break from the bonds of a textbook and rely on one exclusive news-narrative podcast as a sole resource. I feared that content would become overly repetitive, or worse yet that students would become bored with the potential monotony of “more news, Professor Thomas?”.
The 2020 spring semester offered an opportunity to experiment. COVID-19 required a quick pivot to an entirely virtual content delivery world. Our physical classroom evaporated in a span of a few days as national and global turmoil abounded around us. Once the dust settled and I resumed classes in a synchronous remote capacity, I was struck with how distracted students appeared to be. Trial and error became the new daily (sometimes hourly) mantra, and through a painstaking process of activity design roulette, it became clear that the issue was not the content but rather how disconnected the stories, vocabulary, and discussions felt from what was happening in students’ lives. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to do Spanish anymore (a relief!) but that doing it and seemingly ignoring the state of the nation and world was actually doing more of a disservice than I expected.
I had a decision to make: check the curricular box and stay the pre-pandemic course despite signs that more and more students were merely going through the motions, or develop completely new content that reflected what was taking place in real-time. Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, we studied excerpts of Hispanic-American literature to focus in on three particular domains in a pursuit to push from the intermediate mid and high levels to an advanced low: describing and narrating in the present, past, and future, listening to and writing about abstract topics, hypothesizing, and supporting an opinion, and using an increasingly complex vocabulary. In stepping back to look at these goals, I felt there was no reason we couldn’t still pursue them even if we pivoted to different, more actualized content as news about COVID-19, Black Lives Matter protests, increasingly punitive immigration policy, the 2020 presidential election, and more unfolded. I was fortunate that the course lent itself to rapid adaptation, and that my students were open to trying something new if it meant working on vocabulary, reading about events, and discussing issues that we were literally living through.
I turned to the narrative news podcast, “Democracy Now! en español” and its corresponding news blog to attempt this. Free episodes are released daily Monday through Friday with national to international headlines being covered over 12-to-15-minutes. Each news report is easy to pause, repeat, or even break out entirely for focus activities. The podcast is available as an app or can be accessed via any browser, thus making it an extremely accessible resource. This was vital since many students had left their course books behind not expecting to lose total access to them (and were understandably not keen on or able to simply re-purchase or rent).
Since this rapid curricular redesign was meant to cover a period of seven weeks for a class that met three days a week, I opted to use only this one podcast resource to streamline content for students. In a different context, it would be constructive to use multiple sources. Variety would also necessitate conversations about reporting bias and the political leanings of different media outlets. In my experience, “Democracy Now! en espanol” is more neutral in tone, offering simple reports of events with little additional commentary. This, and the repetition of using the same source, served my objectives well.
When listening to an episode, it’s obvious that it is a podcast designed for authentic consumption. This could obviously present challenges when using it in a classroom setting and I did consider using a slower-paced resource. But, since part of our original course objectives were to cross the threshold between mid-to-high intermediate and low advanced proficiencies, I decided that “Democracy Now! en español” was appropriate for the challenge of tackling speed of speech, navigating differences in accents, and building a new register of actualized vocabulary. Plus, with episodes being released on a daily basis, content was the most up-to-date as possible. I determined that the following five activities were the most pedagogically productive and effective in piquing and maintaining student interest in a situation ripe with variables.
First, I would pre-screen an episode to listen for vocabulary that I suspected would be new, limiting myself to fifteen to twenty per “unit” (one episode comprised one unit, which we would work on for approximately three fifty-minute class periods). This list would become an ice breaker for the start of class. I created virtual Spanish-English flashcards for each word using Quizlet so that all students had (free) access via the same platform. With the breakout room feature on our virtual learning platform, students used these flashcards to play circonloquio (deliberately using many words to describe something). Player A selects the first word that they see on their Quizlet flashcard set. In Spanish, they describe what it is using details, scenarios, or acting without using the actual word. Player B must try and guess what the word is (they can do so in English!). Once player B is successful in guessing the word, they switch roles and repeat until they have gone through the entire Quizlet deck. Some examples include herramientas de privacidad (privacy settings), chaleco antibalas (bulletproof vest), huelga (strike), postularse (run for office), and bipartidario (bipartisan).
Next, we translated snippets of an episode. There is an English version of the podcast and website, but students had not yet listened to the full episode nor read associated articles (so they could not know from which I was pulling content from). Simple “find word” searches within the page would be an effort similar to finding a needle in a haystack, and since this was primarily an in-class activity, I did not experience issues with students attempting to circumvent the translation challenge.
I had again pre-screened to select phrases and expressions that I knew would be tricky, such as, “smashed the competition and won a new term”, “ran for office”, “continued to pay tribute to”, or “staged multiple protests”. Students had to think about word choices and really work to arrive at as near of a translation as possible without falling into the trap of being overly literal with English (i.e., correr para oficina) or selecting a word that is better suited for a different context (such as the multiple options for smashed). For the first while students could not use dictionaries, only each other and their own knowledge to think and talk through ideas. After a bit they were permitted to use WordReference (particularly the forums where the nitty gritty of word choice and regional variance is often highlighted). When the time came to review each sentence together, students were encouraged to volunteer their translations first before I revealed the correct answers.
In a typical round of this activity, we would easily spend entire fifty-minute class sessions on just five sentences. These activities quickly became a favorite as they sparked dialogue and even a bit of friendly competition to see who arrived at the closest translation. We were a group with backgrounds and influences from Spain, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Peru, as well as Texas, southern California, and other parts of the U.S., and so the debate amongst us about word choices and expressions became extremely rich.
The third component led us to consider the written news articles that the translations had focused on. I provided links to each of the stories that I had used to extract the vocabulary for the circonloquio and translation activities. Students had to select an article of interest to then read and summarize in their own words. After writing, I used the virtual breakout room feature to partner students into pairs and share their summaries. They were not permitted to simply read directly from their papers but rather had to speak while looking at their partners and engaging with the content. In a virtual modality, I would constantly jump between rooms to make sure they were looking up and at each other (not reading!), offering gentle reminders that the goal was to converse. We repeated these two to three more times with different partners as I would manually rotate them in and out of virtual discussion rooms.
The final component asked students to jump over to Flipgrid after class to record a brief video telling us about either their or a partner’s article and why it had piqued their interest. Flipgrid is another mobile, tablet, and laptop friendly free resource that worked particularly well with all of us being in different locations and time zones. Students were required to watch and comment on at least two of their classmates’ videos, which created a parallel discussion that gained its own momentum as many opted to comment on more than the required two.
As pandemic, political, and social unrest whirled around us our content became a reflection of the situations that instructor and students alike were living through. While my initial hope in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic was that our class content would serve as a positive diversion, it was very quickly obvious that students were much more eager to delve into topics like the COVID-19, the 2020 election, BLM protests, and more, rather than shy away from it.
Establishing some ground rules was necessary in order to ensure that the dynamic did not become too politicized or polarizing. By this point in the term, I knew the group well enough to partner certain students with others for the circonloquio and the article-sharing component of the activity. I trusted their ability to approach our translation activities with civility and, since the bulk of emphasis was on why this word versus that word, or that verb tense versus this one, our work did not devolve into hostility or dismissiveness. As the instructor, you know your students and academic environment best; all of the above can be modified as needed to ensure the most effective delivery possible.
The nature of the 2020 news cycle meant that difficult topics would arise in our work. I found that my students were not as interested in debating the finer points of the matter but rather were genuinely interested in shifting their focus during our class periods to the language aspect of what they were living through. In short, these activities became a form of catharsis enabled by foreign language learning. Through the reworking of content we were able to accomplish a great deal. Not only in terms of the pedagogical goal of pushing towards achieving an advanced-low proficiency, but, perhaps more importantly in the context of 2020, of creating an actualized learning space where students could broach, dissect, and discuss what were an exceedingly overwhelming set of circumstances (in Spanish!).
Top Left: ONE WORLD. Global climate change protest demonstration strike. Image from Markus Spiske.
Bottom Left: BLM protest in Chicago, IL. Image from Max Bender.
Middle: The 2020 Presidential Debate. Image from Clay Banks.
Right: Coronavirus. Image by Engin Akyurt.