Join us for the 2022 annual Symposium on Language Pedagogy in Higher Education (SOLPHE)!
The Symposium is co-hosted by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Ohio University, and AAUSC.
7-8 October, 2022; free and online!
Official website, with call for papers:
Deadline: 1 June 2022
Are you an AAUSC member? If so, you are invited to participate in the annual business meeting via Zoom. Don’t miss it!
Time: Oct 1, 2021 02:00 PM Pacific Time (3pm Mountain, 4pm Central, 5pm Eastern)
Join Zoom Meeting
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AAUSC French Meeting
Meeting ID: 984 5069 6115
Several AAUSC language-specific meetings have been organized to coincide with SOLPHE 2021. If you would like to attend these meetings, you will need to contact the section head (convener) for the Zoom link:
Nicole Mills, Interim Director of Language Programs, Harvard University
At the end of January 2020, just six weeks before our transition to remote instruction due to Covid19, I started the position as interim Director of Language Programs in the Department of Romance Languages & Literatures (RLL) at Harvard University. In this new role, I oversee the language programs in Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan. There are 10 Senior Preceptors and Preceptors who act as coordinators of various language courses and approximately 40 TAs and TFs who teach in the RLL Language Program. We have approximately 1500 students enrolled in the various courses throughout our program every year. Taking on this new role during this tumultuous time period, I quickly realized that collaboration was imperative and that numerous initiatives and projects—pedagogical, emotional, scholarly, and community-building—would be necessary to meet the needs of the various constituents that I served in our department. In addition to remote language pedagogy, it was important that our L2 education and professional development experiences addressed the current economic, political, and emotionally charged climate of the world and its impact on our language-culture classrooms (remote or otherwise). With a theory-meets practice orientation, the various initiatives described below incorporate various online platforms, technologies, and practices and aim to foster a collaborative spirit among faculty, TAs, TFs, and students. In a campus-wide survey in September 2020, students were asked if they were able to engage meaningful with the course material and with other students. We were happy to learn that the mean score for all RLL language program courses (Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese) was 4.8/5.0. I would be happy to share ideas and resources if others are interested in replicating these initiatives in their own language programs.
Community Building Initiatives for Language Faculty, TAs, and TFs
In the abrupt turn to remote language instruction in Spring 2020, the goals of the weekly language faculty meetings were to offer a safe space for the expression of concerns and issues regarding remote instruction, to share evolving updates in administrative policies, and to discuss budding remote language teaching strategies in breakout rooms. For Fall 2020, we established language faculty meetings every two weeks. We are holding informal language faculty social gatherings on the Congregate platform and more formal monthly language faculty meetings via Zoom. The informal social gatherings have included vibrant discussions with invited guests such as Nancy Costikyan, the Director of the Office of Work-Life, to discuss how to maintain a healthy work-life balance during Covid19. I also asked our two departmental pedagogy fellows to organize weekly meet-up groups in Spring 2020 so that TAs and TFs could discuss their experiences navigating this new mode of instruction. Best practices and short vignettes about how they creatively harnessed new technologies to engage students were documented over the course of the Spring semester on a shared Google Doc. In addition, I have asked the pedagogy fellows to run a reading group on the latest research on language pedagogy and remote learning. In collaboration with TFs from other departments, they meet to discuss emerging research from journals such as CALICO, Foreign Language Annals, Second Language Research and Practice, System, and the Language Educator. Informal weekly Zoom lunch meet-up groups have also been organized so that TAs and TFs can meet informally, socialize, and share best remote teaching practices.
Collaborations with the Harvard Language Center
In spring 2020, following conversations with Andrew Ross, the Director of the Harvard Language Center, I researched articles on hybrid and online language teaching from Fernando Rubio, Robert Blake, Richard Kern, and others and created a reference list of twelve to fifteen articles. Each student in my graduate course signed up for one article and reviewed our existing COVID-19 language teaching online resources. We asked the students to consider various questions: How can we enhance the existing remote language teaching resources for the Harvard community? Is there relevant information from your assigned article that could be integrated within our resources? The website’s text was placed in Google Docs so that we could crowd source comments and suggestions. We divided the class into four working groups and asked students to discuss strategies to enhance our existing resources. Each group had an online language teaching or technology expert present to guide the breakout room discussions. Students became the representatives of their assigned articles and worked collaboratively to come up with an action plan for the development of remote language teaching resources for next year’s teaching cohort. Using a Google Doc to document ideas, they actively discussed content, organization, structure, and strategies from research for a full hour. In the following class session, the four groups formally presented their action plans and submitted their finalized Google Docs to the Language Center.
Remote Language Teaching Database
Through informal chats and email conversations with instructors, I solicited sample remote teaching materials for a Remote Language Teaching database so that we could crowdsource our collective experiences and learn collectively about this new medium. Instructors posted these lessons on a Canvas site as inspiration to their fellow and future colleagues. I transferred other types of materials to a Canvas site created by the Harvard Language Center. From my graduate seminar, I uploaded the research articles on hybrid and online language teaching and the Google Docs with recommendations for remote language teaching resources. I transferred student survey templates and other sample administrative documents. With permission, I uploaded the personal stories from the TA/TF meet-up groups about how they creatively used new technologies to engage students in remote language learning. Approximately 60 handouts, documents, lesson plans, PowerPoints, and VoiceThread Boards were ultimately shared by French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese instructors in Spring 2020. We are continuing to encourage contributions to the Canvas Site and curate, “tag,” and organize the materials in a pedagogically and research-based fashion.
Language, Media, & Design Workshops (Fall 2020)
In collaboration with a media and design fellow and the Learning Lab, I have organized a “Language, Media, and Design” workshop series that encourages instructors to imagine, brainstorm, and “dream” how new technologies could be applied to remote language teaching in Fall 2020. The workshop format includes a pedagogical or theoretical framing in an interview format with a scholar, pedagogue, artist, or curator. We then feature an application of theory meets practice with a sample remote language teaching application from an RLL language course. The third phase includes a virtual “playground” in which participants will have time to explore related digital platforms and to imagine how these pedagogical notions and applications may be applied to their own teaching contexts.
The titles of the Fall 2020 workshops include:
“Tiktok: Creating discourse communities” (with speaker Maria Luisa Parra, Coordinator of the Spanish in the Community Courses for Latino Students)
“Visual storytelling: Engaging with Cultural Narratives” (with speaker Lex Brown, Artist and college fellow in media practice in the Department of Art, Film, and Visual Studies)
“Virtual Spaces: Experiential learning in the Digital Classroom.” (with speaker Rus Gant, Director of Harvard’s Visualization Research and Teaching Laboratory)
“Dialogue for Change” Discussion Series (Spring 2021)
In the current economic, political, and emotionally charged climate that we are currently experiencing across the world, the novice instructors in my language pedagogy course had questions and concerns about how to navigate what Eleanor Craig (Program Director of Ethnicity, Migration, and Rights at Harvard) describes as “hot” topics. They expressed concerns about how to ensure open communication while respecting boundaries and how to navigate these challenges in our language classrooms where students are learning how to express their ideas in a language that may feel “foreign” to them. This discussion series was initiated when I invited Eleanor Craig to lead a discussion with our TAs/TFs in Fall 2020. With over 30 TAs and TFs present from our department at this first session, it was clear that we needed to continue the conversations. As a follow-up, I organized a working group with graduate students to design a discussion series in Spring 2021 entitled “Dialogue for Change.” One discussion topic will include an interview with one of our TFs and two founding members of Second Tree. They will discuss their educational model for refugee language education in Greece that emphasizes strategies that do not avoid “hot topics” but instead engages students directly with those topics with respect and care to transform challenges into opportunities for learning. Another session will emphasize discussions of grammatically binary language and gender identity to create further opportunities for open discussion and inclusion within the language classroom. The last topic will address how to broach environmental issues in the language-culture classroom. It will begin with a cross-disciplinary panel discussion followed by a presentation of lessons tackling environmental issues in our RLL courses. For both the Fall and Spring discussion series, the end goal is to create a “theory meets practice” video podcast series that features case studies of creative remote language teaching applications. Our goal is to share this podcast series with other language-culture programs within Harvard and beyond.
Excerpts of this description from:
Mills, N. A. (2020). Language Program Direction During COVID-19: Collective Memories of the Extraordinary. Invited contribution to the Second Language Research and Practice Journal.
A special thank you to the 2020 Bok pedagogy fellows, Matthew Rodriguez, Xiomara Feliberty-Casiano, Emily Epperson, and Luca Politi, who have helped foster a collaborative spirit in our department in our transition to remote language instruction. I would also like acknowledge Rodrigo del Rio, our Media Design Fellow, and the Harvard Language Center, for their technology support and innovation. Finally, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to our course heads, TAs, and TFs who dedicated tremendous time and energy to remote language teaching and helped create a warm teaching community in our department.
Programmatic Intervention: We Can Learn Arabic Website, wecanlearnarabic.com
Emma Trentman, University of New Mexico
The We Can Learn Arabic website is an open-access resource for lower division Arabic classes launched in Fall 2020. It is the culmination of the curriculum development projects I have led at the University of New Mexico since 2012 where my colleagues Heather Sweetser, Abdullah Serag, and I moved from using a textbook, to adapting the textbook, to using a mix of textbook and supplemental materials, to only supplemental materials, to the We Can Learn Arabic website. Throughout this process, my goal has been to integrate research and theories in Applied Linguistics, specifically genre-based and multilingual approaches, with the everyday classroom practice of lower division language teaching.
The website is organized according to thematic units, then can-do statements, then example texts. The thematic units (e.g. introductions, daily routines, food) are designed such that programs can mix and match them to create their own curricula. Within each thematic unit, the learning objectives are specific language functions, realized as can-do statements, such as “I can meet a new person”, “I can describe my daily routine on a school day”, or “I can order food”. Each can-do statement is accompanied by example texts, or video and written texts curated from the internet that provide examples of Arabic speakers “doing” these can-do statements. The curated texts include those created by various Arabic programs and shared on the internet as well as videos with a wider audience than Arabic students. We have partnered with Playaling, https://playaling.com/, a group that captions Arabic YouTube videos, to curate their videos and add new ones we find to their collection.
Each example text is accompanied by a list of relevant vocabulary and grammar, as well as a set of linked activities (understanding, analyzing, applying) inspired by genre-based approaches to language teaching. These activities help students to understand and analyze the stages and phrases that allow a particular text to achieve its goal (the can-do statement), apply this knowledge when they do it themselves, and then reflect upon their performance to improve for the next time. There are also periodic assessments, for both the can-do statements and the thematic units that allow students to evaluate their abilities in a functional way.
The overall goal of this website is to provide a flexible, research-based resource for Arabic teachers and students. It can be used in place of a textbook (as we do at the University of New Mexico) or alongside a textbook, and provides both structure (for teachers or programs who want a more traditional structure to follow) as well as flexibility (for teachers or programs who want to adapt the materials to their own contexts). For example, programs can choose the order of the units, and the texts within the units based on their own context, and also copy the activities and edit them within Google Drive. The flexibility of the website format also allows us to adapt the resource immediately based on teacher and learner feedback, and we have made several modifications already in the three months since it has launched. Although the website is a volunteer effort, the fact that the University of New Mexico Arabic program uses it in our classes, and our coordination with Arabic teachers across the nation and world, ensures that it can be continually maintained and improved with program, teacher, and student feedback.
This program is highly relevant to language program direction and L2 education because it provides an open access resource comprised of curated online materials, which is especially useful in the current environment of virtual and remote teaching. It also provides the materials in a less commonly taught language and in a format that provides enough structure to serve as a textbook, yet also enough flexibility for programs to adapt to their own contexts.
This project is innovative in that it connects theories in Applied Linguistics (specifically genre-based and multilingual approaches) with classroom practice in ways that can be applied by teachers and learners without a background in these theoretical approaches. Drawing from genre-based approaches, the understand, analyze, apply framework asks learners to understand the difference stages of a text as it achieves its goal, and provides the opportunity for drawing attention to culturally specific stages. It also encourages learners to understand the linguistic elements, or phrases, that help the text achieve its goal, and to understand how they can repurpose these stages and phrases to achieve the goal in their own specific contexts. At the same time, this approach is accessible to teachers and learners who are unfamiliar with genre-based approaches.
Similarly, the website draws from multilingual approaches to Arabic learning by including videos from a variety of Arabic dialects, including multilingual and multidialectal texts that represent the ways Arabic speakers use language. The understanding and analyzing activities help draw learners’ attention to this variation in Arabic, with two main goals. The first is to develop learners’ knowledge of linguistic variation in Arabic, including the social meanings indexed by this variation. Second, the texts and activities help learners develop their receptive abilities across a wide variety of dialects while also providing them with the agency to choose which variants represent the social identities they wish to portray. In this way, this project connects modern theories in Applied Linguistics with the lower division language classroom in ways that can be applied by teachers and learners without an academic background in these theories.
This website could be replicated for other languages, as it provides a straightforward framework to follow when curating texts. More importantly, this website, and thus the connections between research and practice it creates, can be adopted in Arabic programs worldwide, whether through using the website as a substitute for a textbook or supplemental material. In fact, although this website was launched in Fall 2020, I have heard from several teachers across the United States and even in the United Kingdom about how they are using it in their classes. Some of these teachers appreciate the structure, as they can follow it like a textbook, while others enjoy the flexibility of choosing the units and texts that fit into their existing curricula. Several of these teachers have also shared relevant texts in a variety of Arabic dialects that we can incorporate into the site, strengthening it as a resource.
The We Can Learn Arabic has the potential to impact a large number of program, teachers, and students worldwide, as it is open access and can be adapted into existing Arabic programs in a variety of ways. It could also be used for self-study, as a graduating student has already told me he plans to do. Through collaboration with Arabic teachers at other institutions, who submit resources and feedback, this website can adapt to the needs of diverse Arabic programs while also maintaining connections between research and theories in Applied Linguistics and classroom practice.
Timothy McCormick, Language Program Assistant Director (2016-2019), Georgetown University
Jorge Méndez Seijas, Preceptor in Romance Languages and Literatures (Harvard University). Language Program Assistant Director (2016-2018), Georgetown University
Cristina Sanz, Professor of Spanish Linguistics, Language Program Director (1995-present), Georgetown University
Executive summary. In 2016, prompted by University-wide curricular changes that affected matriculation numbers at our institution in the Northeast, we began a two-year process that completely revamped the curriculum of the third-year advanced Spanish courses. Four new and innovative courses emerged, with goals, content, tasks, and assessment rubrics newly tailored to match the needs of the students and to reflect this moment in history. The new curriculum, organized in a theme-based model of sustained content language teaching (Murphy & Stoller, 2001), explores historical, sociocultural, and geopolitical topics from a transatlantic perspective, thus connecting the Americas and Spain through shared social justice challenges that are both local and global (e.g., gender and race discrimination; hegemonic power within language, policy and economics; collective and individual identities and their relationship to language policies or ideologies). The transatlantic approach also corrects an injustice built into the previous advanced language sequence (as noted by students in needs-analysis surveys), which gave the same curricular time to Spain as to the whole of Spanish-speaking America, a hand-me-down of Europe’s colonialist past that failed to prepare students for their future careers.
Curricular context. Advanced courses require prior completion of the intermediate level of the language sequence. Of the five courses to be renewed, three were targeted to the many foreign affairs majors that choose Spanish to prepare for the advanced oral proficiency exam (OPE), a school-wide requirement. The OPE assesses their ability to use the target language professionally by demonstrating appropriate lexicogrammatical and sociocultural knowledge at roughly the equivalent of ACTFL’s Advanced Highlevel in Oral Communication. The other two were intensive courses with dwindling registration numbers as intensive coursework was eliminated from language major requirements. Over time, intensive courses had become alternatives for students who needed to quickly move through the language sequence. It is within this context that the Language Program Director and two Assistant Directors conducted needs- analysis interviews and surveys of students, administrators and faculty to modernize the curriculum and better meet the needs of stakeholders. The four resulting courses are: 1) an advanced 2-course sequence; 2) its intensive equivalent; and 3) an option that expands linguistic skills and sociocultural knowledge for students who need additional OPE preparation or who declare the Spanish minor.
Curricular goals: Beyond linguistic and critical sociocultural knowledge and awareness, we wanted these courses to impact our students’ sense of global citizenship by establishing the following goals: 1) critically analyze major aspects of the language, culture, and society of the Spanish-speaking world; 2) demonstrate the ability to articulate their own perspectives and develop informed, nuanced insights on fundamental human issues with regards to the Spanish-speaking world; 3) question their own values and reflect on the assumptions underlying their views of Spanish-speaking populations in the US and around the world; 4) understand and express ideas in Spanish at concrete and abstract levels in written and oral forms; 5) demonstrate the ability to be effective “cultural translators” (Pratt, 2002) of the Spanish-speaking world, that is, cultural mediators aware of subtle, yet important, linguistic and sociocultural differences; and 6) demonstrate critical awareness of matters of social justice that affect minority/minoritized communities in the Spanish-speaking world.
Innovation: Curriculum design at all levels of language instruction in Higher Education is heavily influenced by commercial textbooks, which not only dictate sequencing, but also the linguistic and cultural content. This overreliance on commercial textbooks carries pernicious consequences. On the one hand, most of these textbooks largely disregard research-based practices from instructed second language acquisition (SLA; Cubillos, 2014), and therefore threaten the development of language proficiency. On the other hand, they offer only a “restricted and restricting tourism discourse and shallow treatment of diversity as multiplicity, not difference” (Kramsch & Vinall, 2015, p. 22), limiting students’ intercultural competence. Such misleading discourse may give learners the false impression that there are practically no differences between their culture and the target cultures (Kramsch, 1988). For instance, elements related to class, race, and gender are often hidden (Morales-Vidal & Cassan, 2020), thereby neglecting discussion of social justice that are central to understanding the target cultures and our own.
Given textbooks’ shortcomings, building a curriculum and all corresponding materials from scratch was the only means to offer a truly innovative and stimulating learning experience. With this freedom from commercial textbooks, we developed courses that fully aligned with current understandings of SLA, critical cultural awareness, and literacy development. We couched our curricular project within the framework of critical content-based instruction (Kubota, 2016; Sato, Hasegawa, Kumagai, & Kamiyoshi, 2017) and task- based language teaching (TBLT). Our approach included carefully integrating and balancing language and cultural content (Lyster, 2017); advancing critical thinking and critical skills (Cammarata, 2016); and selecting socially-responsible and critically-oriented content. Throughout the curriculum, students analyze a wide array of multimodal texts, interacting directly with varied, authentic cultural artifacts. Our approach is oriented towards literacy, understood as “the use of socially-, historically-, and culturally-situated practices of creating and interpreting meaning through texts. It entails at least a tacit awareness of the relationship between contextual conventions and their context of use, and ideally, the ability to reflect critically on those relationships” (Kern, 2000, p.16). While traditional TBLT promotes mostly communicative exchanges of daily life, our design promoting literacy goes further by constructing task-based analyses of texts (Byrnes, Crane, Maxim, & Sprang, 2006).
Transferability: Although the curriculum responds to specific needs of our institution’s stakeholders, this project can be easily adapted and replicated at other institutions thanks to several innovations. Linguistically, this project is grounded in SLA research and language pedagogies, proven to be effective in many different learning contexts. These theoretical approaches are therefore not exclusive to courses of any level, instruction, or content. Culturally, we utilized only authentic sources, which provide an unfiltered perspective of the target cultures. This gives learners direct access to discern how different worldviews are encoded in other languages and cultures (Eppelsheimer, Küchler, & Melin, 2014). Because the learners in our courses study foreign affairs, we assign many publicly accessible texts, such as reports from organizations like UNESCO or the World Bank. Financially, building and maintaining such a curriculum does not present a budgetary burden to institutions or, more importantly, to students. With the ever-growing cost of commercial textbooks and efforts to increase underprivileged students admitted to universities, free access to course materials was a consideration sine qua non for this project. With very few exceptions, the texts in the curriculum are accessed online at no cost (incidentally reminding students of their authenticity), and those not publicly available, such as films, are provided through the library. Finally, it warrants mention that the use of authentic texts (e.g., news articles, reports, social media) means that our “living textbook,” so to speak, is constantly updating. As a case in point, many of the texts currently in use have already integrated information related to COVID-19 and how it has affected the lives and livelihoods of Spanish-speaking communities in the US and all over the world.
Relevance: The cultural and linguistic reflection that critical content- and literacy-based approaches allow was paramount to our curricular project: we sought to incorporate and scaffold our content in ways that developed literacy while simultaneously, and forcefully, advancing an unambiguous social justice agenda.
In this sense, we created courses couched within a critical pedagogical framework, which continually promote awareness and concrete action (e.g., policy strategies and solutions) against structures of political, social and economic power that marginalize historically oppressed communities (Freire, 1970). For example, one weeks-long unit explores how different minoritized communities, such as Afro-Latinos or the LGTBQ+ community, suffer discrimination, both legal and social. During this unit, students critically analyze texts to learn how laws enacted in Latin America and Spain, at best, have made societies only slightly fairer or, at worst, have further marginalized these communities. We also examine how various communities within these regions experience language-based discrimination (e.g., Spanish-speaking US Latinos, Mayan-speaking rural communities in Guatemala, Euskera-speaking communities in the Basque Country), and students look for ways to somehow change the status quo.
Impact. Since 2016, these four courses have been offered every semester to approximately 270 students in 15 sections taught by 10-17 instructors (tenure- and non-tenure-line faculty and graduate students). We work closely with those involved to create a sense of community and cooperation, ensuring that all stakeholders benefit from this new critical approach to language and culture. Thanks to the innovative design and the cooperative community of instructors, the living textbook is consistently updated to include new content as the geopolitical situation changes. Results have been overwhelmingly positive. Students surveyed as part of the implementation process reported greater confidence in understanding the cultures with which they would interact in future endeavors (e.g., study abroad, internships), particularly those students who experienced the advanced program before and after the redesign. Evaluators of the OPE have also noted a marked difference since the implementation of these new courses. Not only do they reference students’ enhanced proficiency, they also report students offering more nuanced analyses and understanding of the broader sociopolitical context of Spain and Latin America. (1500 words)
Byrnes, H. & Crane, C., Maxim, H. & Sprang, K. (2006). Taking Text to Task: Issues and Choices in Curriculum Construction. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 152.
Cammarata, L. (2016). Content-Based Foreign Language Teaching Curriculum and Pedagogy for Developing Advanced Thinking and Literacy Skills. New York: Routledge.
Cubillos, J. (2014). Spanish textbooks in the US: Enduring traditions and emerging trends, Journal of Spanish Language Teaching, 1:2, 205-225
Eppelsheimer, N., Küchler, U., & Melin, C. (2014). Claiming the Language Ecotone: Translinguality, Resilience, and the Environmental Humanities. Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, 1(2).
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London, UK: Bloomsbury.
Kern, R. (2000). Literacy and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kramsch, C. (1988). The cultural discourse of FL textbooks. In A. J. Singerman (Ed.), Toward a new integration of language and culture (pp. 63-88). Middlebury, VT: Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign.
Kramsch, C., & Vinall, K. (2015). The cultural politics of language textbooks in the era of globalization. In X.L. Curdt-Christiansen & C. Weninger (Eds.), Language, ideology and education: The politics of textbooks in language education (pp. 11-28). London and New York: Routledge.
Kubota, R. (2016). Critical content-based instruction in the foreign language classroom: Critical issues for implementation. In L. Cammarata (Ed.), Content-based foreign language teaching: Curriculum and pedagogy for developing advanced thinking and literacy skills (pp. 192–211). New York: Routledge.
Lyster, R. (2007). Learning and Teaching Languages through Content: A Counterbalanced Approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Morales-Vidal & Cassany (2020) El mundo según los libros de texto: Análisis Crítico del Discurso aplicado a materiales de español LE/L2, Journal of Spanish Language Teaching, 7:1, 1-19, DOI: 10.1080/23247797.2020.1790161
Murphy, J., & Stoller, F. (2001). Sustained-Content Language Teaching: An Emerging Definition. TESOL Journal, 10(2-3), 3-5.
Pratt, M.-L. (2002). The traffic in meaning: Translation contagion, infiltration. Profession, 25–36.
Sato, S., Hasegawa, A., Kumagai, Y., & Kamiyoshi, U. (2017). Content-based Instruction (CBI) for the Social Future: A Recommendation for Critical Content-Based Language Instruction (CCBI). L2 Journal, 9(3).
Western Michigan University
Pathways to empower Black and African American students in college-level Spanish classes
Background and overview
When I arrived at my large state university in Michigan five years ago, I was pleased to see a sizeable number of Black and African American students on campus and in the introductory Spanish classes I was hired to direct. Analysis of our program’s strengths and weaknesses, however, revealed that Black and African American students receive lower grades and are less likely to continue studying Spanish at higher levels than other students. As the language program director and an academic dedicated to fostering success for all students, I am determined to investigate and address this reality and to implement necessary changes.
In this application I describe my path to deal with issues of inequity encountered by Black and African American students at my institution. The project consists of three phases: describing the problem at hand, understanding its origin (the current phase of the project), and, finally, taking concrete measures to solve the problem.
Describing the problem
In Spring 2020, I sought permission to compile a database for our Spanish program using students’ official demographic and academic information provided by my institution’s office of institutional research. I ran several descriptive statistics on this dataset to determine the magnitude of the problem.
During academic year 2019-2020, enrollment in the four introductory Spanish courses I direct (Basic Spanish I and II, and Intermediate Spanish I and II) plus the two 3000-level “bridge” courses (Spanish Conversation and Spanish Composition) totaled 1,261 students, of which 209—or 16.6%—self-reported as Black or African American. I am pleased this percentage is above the 12% reported for our institution and the 14.1% for the state of Michigan. Over the last six years, the rate of Black and African American students has remained stable and represents the biggest minority group in our program.
A breakdown of enrollment by course, however, reveals that the proportion of Black or African American students in our courses progressively declines in higher-level courses. Graph 3 shows that over the last six years roughly 20% of students enrolled in SPAN 1000 and 1010 were Black and African American, well above university rates. However, percentages for the 2000-level courses declined to the 11-18% range. Proportions for this student group continued to decline in 3000-level courses to figures often below university means and to an alarming six-year low of 6% in the last academic year.
The disadvantage that Black or African American students experience in our program becomes more pronounced when considering academic performance, as evidenced by the final grade value obtained in the course (on a 0-4 scale). The last 6 years show that Black or African American students have consistently received lower grades than their peers in our Spanish program, as depicted by boxplots in Graph 4. An extreme area of concern is academic year 2016/17, when the median (horizontal line inside box) final grade for Black or African American students was an entire grade point lower than the median for all other groups, while the mean grade (blue dot) also trailed substantially behind.
Inequity in academic performance between Black or African American and other groups becomes increasingly worrisome when data are broken down by course, as shown in Graph 5. At every level, both mean and median grade values are below other groups, with the starkest contrast in the 3000-level courses, where the median final grade value for Black or African American students is 1.5 points below that of White students.
In summary, Black or African American students at my institution begin Spanish education at high rates but are less likely to advance to higher-level courses and more likely to obtain lower final grades than other groups. Also, the grade gap becomes more pronounced at higher-level courses.
Understanding the problem
Issues of advancement and academic performance among Black or African American students are not unique to my institution. Several studies have shown Black students begin second language (L2) education at rates that reflect the general population, at both K-12 and post-secondary levels. However, their participation later declines or vanishes altogether in upper-level courses and they are less likely to major or minor in languages than peers (Charle Poza, 2013; Gatlin, 2013; Moore, 2005). Not surprisingly, low academic performance has been linked to demotivated African American students in language classes (e.g., Moore & English, 1998).
What accounts for lower participation and performance in L2 education among Black and African American students? Previous research shows that the reasons are complex and multifaceted but overwhelmingly tied to systemic and long-standing patterns of exclusion, self-perceived inadequacies to learn languages, lack of culturally-relevant materials in the L2 curriculum, and restricted access by educational gatekeepers who discourage Black students from pursuing language study. For example, Lucas (1995) and Charle Poza (2015) reported that Black college students tended to see little value in studying French or Spanish, viewed themselves as less skilled at language learning than their peers, and experienced high levels of anxiety over the low grades they expected to receive, or actually received, in their language classes. Black students enrolled in Spanish classes at a historically black institution expressed high dissatisfaction with the scant emphasis their classes placed on the Black experience in Spanish-speaking cultures (Davis & Markham, 1991), while 128 Black students at a predominantly white university found L2 classes and materials boring or irrelevant to their African American identity (Moore, 2005).
I hypothesize that these patterns of exclusion explain poor retention rates and lower academic performance among Black and African American students in my institution. To better understand the problem, I am currently conducting a needs analysis informed by methodologies and findings from previous literature and composed of the following:
Methods a-c above have been employed in research projects conducted by others. Techniques in (d), however, represent a departure from studies that limit themselves to indirect descriptions of the issues that Black students face in language programs. As Anya (2020) states, “rare are the studies where the actual language-learning interactions and activities of black students and their instructors are directly observed” (p. 101).
Addressing the problem
The last phase of the project will seek to remedy the disadvantages Black and African American students experience in our introductory Spanish program. As previous research has shown, Black students can thrive in L2 learning when the playing field is leveled (Anya, 2017; Flores & Rosa, 2019; Moore & English, 1998). Based on this premise, this last phase will center around two components:
Abreu, L. (2016). Awareness of diversity in the Spanish-speaking world among L2 Spanish speakers. Foreign Language Annals, 49(1), 180–190.
Anya, U. (2017). Racialized identities in second language learning: Speaking blackness in Brazil. Routledge.
Anya, U. (2020). African Americans in world language study: The forged path and future directions. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 40, 97–112.
Anya, U., Baralt, M., Gómez, D., Hecheverría, H., Hobbs, W., Robinson, A. (2019). Improving Spanish-language teacher retention and success among Black Spanish-language learners: An HIS-HBCU collaboration. CLASP. Retrieved from http://claspprograms.org/pages/detail/43/Publications
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AAUSC is pleased to announce the new Innovation in Language Program Direction Award to recognize outstanding examples of curricular and pedagogical innovation in the field of foreign/second language education within institutions of higher education.
This year, AAUSC will give four awards worth $500 apiece: 2 awards for racial/social justice innovation and 2 awards for innovation in online/remote teaching. In addition to receiving monetary awards, the winners will be recognized during AAUSC’s annual business meeting.
All AAUSC members (tenure-track faculty, non-tenure track faculty, adjunct faculty and graduate students) currently employed in aninstitution of higher education are eligible to apply. Applications will be evaluated based on the following criteria:
Relevance: How relevant is the project to language program direction and L2 education?
Innovation: Does the project leverage innovative theories, technologies and/or practices?
Replicability: Can the project be replicated by other language programs in the US?
Impact: How many students are potentially impacted? How profound is the impact?
Applicants must submit a Word file document (approximately 1000-1500 word length) that contains their name, affiliation, and description of their programmatic innovation by October 31st to email@example.com.
Applications will be evaluated in a blind, peer-review process. Winners will be contacted by November 14th, and awards will be presented during AAUSC’s annual Business meeting November 20th held via Zoom.
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