Monday, October 6, 2014

Fun, Engaging Classroom Activity for Students to Debate about Bilingualism and Immigration in the United States

"Spanish in the Community" students doing today's activity.
by Ann Abbott

This week students in my "Spanish in the Community" course were assigned to watch my friend and colleague Kim Potowski's video, No Child Left Monolingual (watch it; you'll enjoy it!), and one of her articles, "Sociolinguistic Dimensions to Immigration" Lengua y migración 5:2 (2013), 29-50.

Before class, I wrote down note cards with things Americans often say--awful things about languages and cultures or things they are simply confused about:
  • I came to this university to study computer science, not Spanish. Why am I required to study a language? That makes me mad!
  • I'm not Irish-American; I'm just American. I don't believe in all this "heritage" baloney.
  • My great-grandpa came from Germany and learned English. Why can't these Mexicans just learn like he did?
  • If we don't all speak the same language, everything will just be utter chaos.
  • My pediatrician told me that my bilingual child is not hitting speech benchmarks. What should I do?
  • English is the most important language in the world. We don't need any other languages!
  • Why should I care about anybody's heritage language? That's their issue!
  • I don't want any of my hard-earned tax money to go for English classes. Make them take an English test before they get into the country.
  • Some people are good at languages, some aren't. How do you expect us all to be an "English +" country?
  • Our school is broke. Why in the world should we be spending on bilingual classes?
  • Spanglish is for dummies.
  • Our country is under attack by all these immigrants! English is under attack!!
I lined students up across from each other. 

The students on one side received one of the note cards. They had to play the role of a nativist (or someone who simply doesn't know about bilingualism, immigration, etc.). They read the words on the card to the student sitting opposite of them. They had to debate and defend that nativist viewpoint. They were even allowed to argue their points in English. That's what nativists do, after all.

The students on the other side had debate, educate and inform the other person about that topic. They had to use the information they learned from Kim's video and article, from their experiences in their community service learning work, and anything they have learned in other courses (Bilingualism in the US, speech and hearing science, bilingual ed, etc.).

They debated for five minutes.

Then students in one row had to move down one seat so that they were sitting across from a new person. I rotated the notecards in the opposite direction. This way everyone was able to debate a new topic with a new person. They did this for five minutes.

We did this for a total of six or seven times, stopping for a moment after each round to see if they had any comments. And, boy, yes, did they have comments!

You can watch these very, very short videos to see how students engaged with the each other and with the activity.

There is a lot of noise about flipped classrooms. I say that in language classrooms, we've been flipping things for a very long time. Still, I think that this is a unique example of a flipped classroom in a language course. Why?

  1. Students had to read and prepare at home.
  2. In class I didn't teach them any of the concepts in Kim's video and article. We didn't sit around in a circle and discuss them. They had to apply what they had seen and read to the activity we did in the classroom.
  3. The students were in control of the activity--I just set it up. For forty minutes out of a fifty-minute class, all I said was: Go! Stop! Switch! Go again! Stop! etc. If they had questions, they raised their hands and I went to them to answer them. But otherwise, they had complete ownership of the activity.
In our next class I'll remind them that we didn't just do this activity in order for them to practice Spanish. Or to regurgitate ideas from Kim Potowski's work. They actually had to use the content and reformulate it for a different purpose: the purpose of refuting mistaken notions about bilingualism and immigration. 

I also want them to know that it goes beyond their learning. We did this so that they will feel empowered, the next time they encounter someone who says these things--and they will!--to be able to respond with real information and facts.

I invite you to use this activity with your students. If you do, let me know how it goes, please. And feel free to share in a comment the great activities that you do with your students.


  1. I tried your activity today with a small caveat. I have a very very small group of students (5 total). I had to adjust for this by becoming the devil's advocate, I became the nativist and they were all supposed to "gang" against me with facts. It was a small tweak but it worked wonders. I

    1. Hola. I'm so glad you tried the activity, tweaked it to your context and felt like it helped students. I think it's very important for them to practice having hard conversations in a safe, supportive place.
      Gracias por compartir. :) --Ann