Tuesday, April 21, 2009

How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (7)

by Ann Abbott

Develop skills of observation.

So what are we and our students to do? In a class about culture or cultural analysis, our students can simply talk about the issues. In our Spanish community service learning courses, students must put it all into action. We must certainly design lesson plans about the process of cultural analysis in general and specific issues that come up frequently in the contexts in which our students work. But we must also encourage our students to become “culture detectives”—to actively look for instances in which their cultural expectations don’t match with those of the community members. And instead of “prescribing” solutions, encourage them to observe how others from the culture behave in the same circumstances.

Darcy Lear left this very insightful comment on my first post on teaching culture:

"I love this post! I have much in common with you--language & culture teaching as well as young children. My child's last check up had the item 'can your child stack 5 blocks?' I said 'I'm sure he can, but I've never sat him down and tested him on it.' I was stunned when the nurse brought me 5 blocks--so I could test him! With both my children I have had this problem at the doctor's office: they are telling me things from charts and questionnaires and I want to scream 'can you look at the human specimen I brought in?!' They're doing fine. They're motoring all over your office with their fine motor skills!

"But it really ties back to culture and how we teach it. As well as all our beliefs about cultures. We all tend to think like the doctors do--our written documentation indicates that X cultures handle Y activity in a certain way. And we stick to that belief even when we receive visual evidence to the contrary. And to me this is what we are teaching when we teach culture: open your eyes and ears (and heart--is that too cheesy?) and observe the world around you. Learn that way. As well as from books and charts and questionnaires. There are a lot of pieces to these puzzles and we need them all to get a complete pictures."

But what would a careful observer learn about funeral processions and US culture based on the experience I described above? They would have observed contradictory practices. Actually, there are laws about what to do when a funeral procession passes by. But based on drivers’ behaviors that I observed, some people don’t know the unwritten or the written rules, or they choose to ignore them.

When our students observe culture carefully, they will see lots of contradictory information. There are just as many differences within cultures than among them. In my experience, some students (certainly not all) are uncomfortable with contradictory information. (Here, I am interested in contradictory information about cultures, but there is research on cultural attitudes towards contradictory information.) Some students also express surprise, even a tinge of anger, when they work in the community and discover that people say or do things differently than they had been taught in a classroom.

Just yesterday I read a student comment about the difference between the words pequeño and chico. They had always been taught the word pequeño and now they were observing that people used chico instead. The student wanted to know which to use, wanted a rule.

My rule? Once you have observed a contradiction, observe some more. Is this true for this individual? For others as well? Do they never use the word pequeño? Only in certain cases? Do they understand you if you use pequeño instead of chico? Is this an instance in which you need to change your behavior/vocabulary? Or is it okay if you just understand this new (to you) meaning of chico?

This process is not quick, neat or easy. It is a process, not an answer. And in one semester working in the community, our students will only be able to get so far with this process. But the great thing about Spanish community service learning is that they can actually experiment and process language and culture at the same time. That is the beauty of it. And the challenge.

Other posts in this series:
How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (3): Rebrand culture.
How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (4): Culture is everything, everything is culture.
How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (5): Analyze your emotions.
How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (6): Wrestle with shadows.
How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (8): An example.

Related posts:


  1. NICE!
    This blog is really nice and How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning is described deeply.

  2. Thank you, Steve! It's always nice when a reader leaves a comment. If you ever want to suggest a topic or add examples from your own experiences, please do so. :)