Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How "Comunidades" Addresses Gender, Immigration, Language and Culture

by Ann Abbott

I wrote the piece below for the upcoming newsletter for Women and Gender in Global Perspectives (WGGP), and I thought I would share it here.

I am a Faculty Affiliate of WGGP, and Gale Summerfield, the Director, and I are friends and Faculty Fellows together at the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership. Although my work does not focus specifically on gender issues, they permeate all discussions of migration, immigration policies, education and social services--basically, everything we talk about in Spanish community service learning!

“'I want to speak Spanish with native speakers!' students say when I ask them what interests them the most about doing Spanish community service learning (CSL)—a teaching methodology in which students do meaningful service learning work within a Spanish-speaking community to enhance their learning of the academic content of the course. Then when I ask what concerns them the most, they often reply, 'I’m nervous about speaking Spanish with native speakers.'

"These seemingly contradictory student attitudes are both reflected in Comunidades: Más allá del aula (Prentice Hall), the first textbook that fully integrates Spanish CSL. On the one hand, Spanish CSL allows students to engage in real-world contexts that illuminate the Spanish language and Latino cultures in challenging, exciting and meaningful ways. On the other hand, students need a solid curricular program that supports them linguistically and culturally as they work in a community context that is quite different from the highly controlled classroom environment they are used to.

"I began teaching SPAN 232 “Spanish in the Community” in 2005 with 12 students and one community partner—Urbana’s East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center. Now around 100 students per semester enroll in our two Spanish CSL courses, and we partner with around a dozen local organizations. All told, students contribute 2,400 volunteer hours each semester. For some of our community partners, this helps them reach local Spanish-speakers for the first time; for others, it helps them enhance what they’re already doing with Latinas/os.

"Gender issues and immigration are highlighted in many parts of the textbook. One reading in particular recounts the triumphs and challenges of an undocumented Latina teen as she navigates high school, narrowly escapes a raid while shopping for a prom dress and cannot attend college because she would have to pay out-of-state tuition. The videos that accompany the textbook feature interviews with several adult Latinas living in the US who describe their experiences with culture shock, the difficulty of being far away during crises in their home countries, the misperceptions held by family and friends in their home country about their lives in the U.S, and more. (The videos can be seen at the Companion Website.) A lesson on push and pull factors for immigration urges students to think more deeply and more globally about the various reasons why people from all over the world take the risk of immigrating.

"Although both students and the community tend to react positively to Spanish CSL, there are many challenges as well. Even students who have taken years of Spanish courses and studied abroad still have trouble transferring their linguistic and cultural skills to a real-world, professional context.

"For example, one of the very first things students learn in any Spanish class is the difference between the informal () and formal (usted, ustedes) ways of addressing other people. In the classroom, students rarely address anyone formally, so they do not practice it; but in the community, they need to use it regularly. The textbook helps them practice this skill in order to be more culturally competent in the community.

"Likewise, students learn early on in their Spanish classes how to form commands, but it too is rarely practiced in a classroom setting. Therefore, when they work with Spanish-speaking children in a local school, they are often not fluent in giving commands to more than one student at a time (e.g., siéntense y abran el libro). Furthermore, students often misinterpret the cultural differences in the use of commands. They may perceive as rude a person who uses commands because their cultural preference would be to temper that form of speech with more indirect requests. However, it can be perfectly acceptable in Hispanic cultures for a person of authority to use the more direct, blunt command.

"As these examples show, students’ Spanish-speaking abilities and cultural knowledge can be very valuable assets to community organizations who often struggle to meet the needs of diverse linguistic groups with limited budgets. However, the challenge for Spanish CSL instructors is to help students bridge their classroom knowledge and their real-world tasks. The lessons in Comunidades are designed to help instructors and students do just that."

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