Thursday, April 5, 2012

Are we Really Talking about Culture or Class in Spanish Community Service Learning?

Photo: Alan Zale for The New York Times
by Ann Abbott

Yesterday I had an e-mail conversation with Kim Potowski, whose work on heritage language learners I greatly admire. Plus, Kim is simply an amazing person. The subject was heritage language learners and community service learning (CSL).

To begin with, the literature that specifically deals with heritage language learners and CSL is scarce. The latest issue of Heritage Language Journal (Vol 8, No 3, Fall 2011) has an article by Jennifer Leeman, Lisa Rabin, and Esperanza Román-Mendoza, George Mason University. Lisa Rabin also has other articles of interest; you can see those articles and all others regarding Spanish CSL on my blog.

Here are observations that I made about Spanish CSL and heritage language learners, some of them perhaps trite.
  • CSL is an approach that plays to heritage speakers' strengths: linguistic and cultural. I have seen heritage speakers flourish in CSL classes. Instead of their backgrounds and bilingualism being seen as "deficient," in a CSL course heritage language learners have valuable expertise.
  • The other side of the coin, of course, is that being directly or even indirectly placed in the role of "informant" or "expert" can be very uncomfortable and counterproductive. Personally, I have never had any problems with this--that I am aware of. But the underlying issue is always there.
  • Community partners value these students highly. Positive: that can enhance the students' learning because of the more advanced kinds of work and responsibility they are given. Negative: community partners can overestimate heritage learners' linguistic and cultural proficiency, and undervalue the non heritage learners in comparison.
  • Linguistic proficiency and cultural knowledge are not the only things necessary for success in a Spanish CSL course. The high fluency and cultural know-how that some heritage language learners posses does not make up for any possible lack of professional and/or academic preparation. (This is true of all students, not just heritage learners.) That is to say, putting students in professional contexts in the community entails a professional preparation that some students do not have, especially if they have never held jobs. It is also not just "an easy A" or "just volunteering." A well-designed foreign language CSL course requires rigorous academic work in order to connect students experiences in the community with other issues. 
  • Students' reflective essays give us a chance to work on the literacy issues that Kim is very familiar with. That makes Kim's book Conversaciones escritas particularly apt for CSL courses or for a composition course that involves CSL.
  • I have many heritage students who seem to have received little if any academic training in the critical thinking about race, ethnicity, language and identity. We should not assume that all heritage learners already know about important issues in any Spanish CSL course: the Dream Act; various immigration statuses (refugee, asylee, green card holder, etc.); Latino immigration as part of a larger, global pattern of human migration; etc. Instead, it is a very good opportunity for them to learn about these issues for the first time.

However, this is the issue that I am most interested in and that no one else that I am aware of is talking about: issues of socio-economic class in Spanish CSL.

At first, many issues that we deal with in Spanish CSL appear to be issues of culture and immigration. "Culture," that is, as some pan-Hispanic concept (whatever that is) versus cultures that are non-Hispanic (again, whatever that is). 

When you dig deeper, however, many of the issues are actually about socio-economic class and the cultures of poverty. OJO: I am not talking about the culture of poverty in terms of the forces that keep people in perpetual poverty. I am talking about the role that your socio-economic class plays in your cultural perspectives, practices and products. Here is a concrete example:


I am from a very small town in rural Southern Illinois. My parents lived in a trailer until right before I was born. They might have even continued to live in a trailer if it were not for the fire that destroyed their home. But as it was, I myself did not grow up in a trailer. However, many of my friends did. I have very fond memories of going to Bart's house (a trailer) to play and when we moved on to high school, to study. My friend Angie, down the road, lived in a trailer and I spent lots of time at her house playing Barbies. Trailers for me were just a normal part of life. 

But that's not the case for everyone. And certainly not for everyone in my Spanish CSL classes at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Several years ago, one of my Latino students wrote in one of his reflective essays about how all his classmates (including other heritage learners) had never been to a trailer park before. This came up in class because two of our local trailer parks house a large number of Latinos. Those students were "discovering" trailers and trailer parks while in the Spanish CSL class. This heritage learner wrote that he had lived in a trailer himself, so he was not "surprised" like his classmates. So although the issue and image of "trailers" came up in a Spanish CSL course and students associated trailers with Spanish-speaking immigrants, that issue is actually more about the connections between housing, poverty and rural/suburban/urban living conditions than Latino immigration per se. Thus, you could have a non-heritage student who has been immersed in a particular culture of poverty (like I was when I was a student!) who is actually more of an "insider" in a Spanish CSL class than a heritage learner who comes from a relatively privileged socio-economic background.

This assertion may seem obvious: the notion of "culture" in a Spanish CSL course includes socio-economic class, not just a notion of culture that is based on ethnicity, linguistic characteristics or nationality. However, I once talked about lack of access to or use of technology among our local Latino immigrants as an example of how I introduce "culture" in my Spanish and social entrepreneurship course. A colleague told me, "That's not culture. That's class." (Do you agree with my colleague? Read "Putting a Human Face on the Problem of the Digital Divide: Meet David and Joanne" by Kristin Thomas. I think you will agree with me: class is culture. Thanks for sharing this piece, Kim.)

Your class is a part of your culture. Our heritage language learners come from varied socio-economic backgrounds. That means that they will experience Spanish CSL in different ways. 

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