Textbooks can be really helpful. Yes, I did say that. They can give you structure and ideas. They can facilitate communication among you, parents, and schools. They can provide you with assessments, sometimes good ones.
Sorry, I still don’t like them. I don’t like doing extra work any more than you do, but I still can’t bring myself to use a textbook (though we do supplement our AP curriculum with the workbook Triángulo Aprobado). But the biggest reason I don’t like them simply can’t be avoided: textbooks are out of date as soon as they’re printed. Before, actually, because the content has to be complete a long time before it goes to print. This week as my students worked on a new activity I call TweetFest (resource out later this week!), looking at a hashtag that started with #8A, they were taken aback when they realized it stood for 8 de abril. They were looking at something someone thousands of miles away wrote in Spanish that very day – within half an hour of when they came in the class, actually. That’s up-to-date.
Now, don’t get me wrong – old news isn’t always irrelevant. History is almost always relevant, but you can’t often understand its full relevance without the light of current information. So how can you infuse your curriculum with relevance without ignoring the critical past? Here are four ideas.
1. Supplement the big idea.
You don’t have to come up with brand new units every year to stay relevant and effective. That doesn’t even make sense in proficiency-based teaching: novice students, for example, can talk about their world, and those topics stay fairly consistent. Rather, change a source here and there for a listening or other activity. Update the source to something both relevant to the big idea and current. In the example of the Twitter activity above, I always include a section on political protests in our AP unit on global challenges. However, even the nature of such a unit requires an update, right? Last year students looked at the protests in Spain and the Mexican student protest #YoSoy132. This year, we kept #YoSoy132 but of course we had to add the protests in Venezuela. It was a natural update to a theme I incorporate anyway. In a unit on art and music, students evaluate a couple of important historical paintings at the Museo del Prado but also look up a modern artist, evaluate his or her art, and even contact the artist.
2. Compare historical figures.
It’s really important for students to learn about people who played an integral part in shaping the fabric of the culture whose language you teach. Don’t throw out these important aspects, but add in some more recent people students may already know about and compare them. Or, ask students to compare these people to themselves. In our unit on social change, we look at César Chávez and compare him to Juan Luis Guerra, and particularly ask this question: does our social or economic background determine whether we can effect positive change in the world around us? My students love Guerra’s music but had no idea who Chávez was. In this way we brought history, modern music, and students’ own lives together.
3. Have students update.
Sometimes there’s something so good you can’t bring yourself to get rid of it. You can keep it and save yourself some research time by setting aside time for students to update you on the situation. The summer before I began teaching Spanish 3 at my current school, Ingrid Betancourt, 3 U.S. contractors, and several Colombian police offers were dramatically and completely peacefully rescued in a perfectly executed spy operation right out of a movie script. The whole dramatic story of their kidnapping, complete with proof of life videos and an actual video of the rescue itself, was so engaging and relevant it made one of the most memorable topics of the year, part of our unit on narrating stories. In subsequent years as the story got “old” its engagement still didn’t dull for new rounds of Spanish 3 students who had never heard it, but we added more relevance, language input, and critical thinking by having the students investigate and update particular aspects of the story for the whole class.
4. Keep an eye on the news with your units in mind.
I’m always advocating asking students to do more critical thinking from the beginning, and infusing your “normal” novice units with current news or local issues is one way to do this. Two ideas came to me recently from some colleagues relevant to a unit on food. Bethanie suggested using the food unit as an opportunity for students to investigate whether and how Spanish-speaking parents have access to the local school district’s lunch menu. Could your students work on some solutions?
Did you know that much of the recent drug violence in Mexico has been concentrated in an area that provides many of the avocados sold in the United States and is affecting their production and sale? Me neither, but this tidbit from Mira struck me as a great way to make a food unit even more relevant and infused with culture and critical thinking.
Get kids thinking, spice up the topics, keep it relevant, keep it fun, and most of all, keep them learning!