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2020 Innovation in Language Program Direction Award: Racial/social justice

09 Dec 2020 4:27 PM | Robert L. Davis (Administrator)

Innovation in Language Program Direction Award: Racial/social justice

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).

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