Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Community Service Learning and Spanish Composition

by Ann Abbott

This semester I am teaching a special honors section of Spanish composition that involves community service learning. Students have the same CSL requirements as students in "Spanish in the Community" and "Spanish & Entrepreneurship," but during class and for homework they have the same requirements as all the other Spanish composition students. The students are wonderful, and I read their writing with interest and delight.

Honestly though, it has been a real challenge to integrate the two components: Spanish composition and CSL.

Of course, written reflections are the obvious points of contact between the two. But what should they write about? How can the actual content of Spanish composition link to CSL?

I  know there are many very good answers, and I'm sure that my readers can share their wonderful ideas. However, this is another case, it seems when we foreign language teachers face a lack of teaching materials.

Just the other day I received a sample copy of Developing Writing Skills in Spanish by Javier Muñoz-Basols, Yolanda Pérez Sinusía and Marianne David (Routledge). I was very happy to see that the content of the book went beyond the typical genres: description, narration, argumentation and exposition. Instead, they also dedicate chapters to advertising, legal & business documents and technical writing. I was also very happy to see an activity-approach to every chapter. Students actually have to do task-based activities in order to learn about each genre and analyze them. That was such a relief from the typical "read this and discuss this" approach. Furthermore, it's not a grammar book disguised as a writing book, as so many are. Yet out of a 37-page chapter, four sentences are dedicated to students' actual writing. At the very end of the chapter, of course.

That is why I use Modelos. It really focuses on the process of writing. Students don't get to the end of the chapter and read: Now write an essay about this. They're given strategies, tactics and tools to use throughout the writing process--from generating ideas to finally editing their language. Unfortunately, its approach has no connection to CSL or the role of writing in the "real world" of Latino immigrants and those who work with them.

The closest we have (that I am aware of) to a book that integrates a process approach and real-world Spanish is Kim Potowski's Conversaciones escritas: Lectura y redaccion en contexto. First of all, the chapters are thematically-organized, not just genre-organized. (Why do  textbooks with chapter titles like "La descripción" and "El ensayo argumentativo" teach students what makes a good title?) That's what writing is about! We write about things. Sure, genre is important--and Conversaciones escritas covers them--, but when we decide to actually write about something it is because we have something to say about something. Furthermore, the chapter topics are pertinent to a Spanish CSL course. In fact, the very first chapter is "La inmigración." Because the book emphasizes US Latino experiences and perspectives, Spanish CSL students will come away better informed about many aspects of the community members' lives. Finally, students do activities, analysis AND writing throughout each chapter. That sends a clear message that writing is a process--and that it is part of thinking, doing and analyzing, not something that happens once you have done all of that preliminary work. There's so much more to say about Kim's wonderful book, but suffice it to say that I will use it the next time I teach my special section of Spanish composition with CSL.

However, I think we can identify gaps that still exist. Any book about writing and Spanish CSL would have to also include the following:

  • Translation. Some brief but explicit instruction on translation. After all, our students must constantly do that in the community even though they have no formal training it. 
  • Letter writing conventions. Students do write a letter in the very first chapter of Conversaciones escritas, but from my experience teaching Business Spanish, they need a lot of guidance about the formalities of letter writing--from what greetings are appropriate to how to close. (I have read "Sinceramente" many, many times!) Our students who work in schools often need to write letters to the parents. Our students who work in offices could help write letters and e-mails (a constant part of work life for all of us) if our community partners new the students were well trained in matters of form and formality.
  • Pamphlets and fliers. Our community partners struggle to keep up-dated brochures about their organization and timely fliers about the events that are constantly occurring in the community. The writing needs to be visually appealing, easy to read with graphic elements that enhance the message and  in a simplified language that even people with lower levels of literacy can comprehend. 
  • On-line content. I haven't seen any composition book tackle this. Writing for the web is very different than writing an academic article with dense paragraphs that fill 15 pages. Students need to know what keeps someone reading on the web--short paragraphs, snappy anecdotes, multiple examples and all the multi-media content that can be embedded. Which is one reason why script-writing or story-boarding for videos should also be part of a CSL composition course.
These are my thoughts based on many years of working with community partners, students and non-profits in general. Ideally, a Spanish composition CSL course would have content that informs students about the communities within which they are working and would introduce writing genres that our community partners use and need. 

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