Content-Based Teaching

Getting rid of textbooks means we can do away with the filter that some publisher decided to put between us and the Spanish-speaking world. Needing no one’s consent, we put our students into direct contact with the language we’re teaching them, and explore it together.

This is a fundamental change that takes some getting used to. Even the very name of our discipline – “What do you do?” “I teach Spanish” – shows that traditionally, we have seen ourselves as people who impart a communication system, made up of grammar and vocabulary, without concerning ourselves as much with the world that uses this system.

Content-based teaching rejects this conception of what we do. Speech itself, in all its complicated glory, is not where we focus our attention and our curriculum. Rather, the things we talk about – what we look at and listen to, and the ideas those things suggest – become the point of the course.

When teaching a content-based curriculum, it is key to organize around a central idea, which you explore in depth over the course of the class. Wiggins & McTighe, in their book “Understanding by Design” (one of only a couple of books I feel are must-reads), posit the idea of the “essential question” as an organizing principle.

If they’re good for this purpose, essential questions generally have no cut-and-dried answers, and require students to come to their own conclusions, which they can defend using examples and evidence from the works that you and the students have been exploring. The best essential questions can be tweaked to provide the prompt for any individual assessment after watching / reading / experiencing particular artifacts, or can, in their original form, provide the end-of-course prompt for the final assessment. They’re the sort of questions that one could spend a full course year building up a good answer to.

The question shouldn’t be specifically about the Spanish-speaking world, but rather about life, the world, in general. There is a real art to designing these questions – if it’s too broad (“Why are we here?”), the students have a hard time getting a handle on it; if it’s too narrow (“What’s it like to be poor in America?”), students feel less like they’re analyzing, and more like they’re giving a report. This difference is crucial: Reports don’t wonder what the student thinks; analysis puts the student’s ideas first and foremost. It’s a much higher-order level of intellectual endeavor, and is therefore both both more engaging to students, and better for them as thinkers and speakers.

Composing the essential question, because it winds up being the capstone to everything, should be the last part of designing your year-long curriculum. The first part should be about deciding what kind of stuff you want to explore with your students, and assembling a pile of it.

This is where cutting the cord with textbooks become liberating, beautiful, and inspiring. Because your content, your essential question, is going to be something you decide for yourself specifically. Yours might be the first course the world has ever seen in the subject you choose.

How to choose? If you’re interested, this is how I arrived at my own choices for which content to concentrate on.

My Content Choices: Why and How

I studied Spanish in high school and college because I found Latin America and its history endlessly fascinating. I love to think about the way Europe and the New World came together violently and suddenly, and  formed an entirely new reality that combined both in a form never before seen.  The true rupture of the barrier between the Old World and the New World ended the Middle Ages, transformed Europe, ravaged and altered radically two enormous continents, drove entire peoples into extinction, brought about the birth of whole nations made up of brand-new, hybrid cultures, changed forever the economy of the entire planet, and ushered in an era of cataclysmic change – tragedy for some, glory for others. It was really the first full-on planetary upheaval in our history. Human beings everywhere were suddenly connected in one giant circuit that has only been building momentum since. From the time I was 13, I found I almost couldn’t think about anything else.

I studied Spanish, Quichua, and German as an undergrad, and went into the Peace Corps in Ecuador after I graduated. I had many a grand adventure in the Andes, then came home and got a Master’s degree in Spanish Literature.

My first post-Master’s degree job was as a high school Spanish teacher at a private school in Western Massachusetts. I kept things pretty traditional, though I was given a lot of freedom to experiment and to design my courses.  But from there, I moved on to teach at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, which had adopted content-based instruction in all its foreign-language offerings.

The idea at Bennington was that the students’ language abilities grow in order to, and as a side effect of, exploring, analyzing, and describing this cool stuff you’re looking at. No one at Bennington taught “French 101” or “Spanish 102”. Rather, every course had as its title the concept it was going to explore. And since the instructor had to be able to sell the content as fascinating, it was critical that the content be something that the instructor him/herself just could not get enough of.

I was not only allowed, but required, to spend weeks designing courses that were completely unique to me and my interests, based on the exploration of content. I came up with semester-long courses on the effects of immigration on the cultures at both ends of it, as seen in the relationship between Mexico and the US; on the process of racial identity creation, as exemplified in the Andes; and on the place occupied by music in the formation of identity, as seen through Latin American music. All things I loved thinking about, using content I knew about and loved, but also employing new stuff that I was continually discovering, often watching it or listening to it for the very first time with my students.

This was endless fun for me, and, as it turned out, for them as well. I got lots of end-of-semester comments like, “I would forget it was Spanish class. It felt like ‘world’ class, or ‘life’ class. And every so often I would remember: ‘Oh, yeah! We’re speaking Spanish.'”

That’s just what you want: The students are so into what they’re speaking about, so motivated to be able to understand it and to figure it out, that they forget they’re learning, deciphering, and, suddenly, without realizing it, speaking!, in another language.

But, as I said above: The instructor has to love it, and be able to make the students love it. The courses I taught, as far as I know, were never taught again once I left Bennington, because the people who replaced me had other interests. Which is as it should be! My perspective – an American raised speaking only English, who had become fascinated by, lived in, and spent all his time thinking about, the Andes – is pretty rare. The best thing I can do for my students is to be my own best self, and show them the things that I love most and have the most experience with. Seen in this way, I became, not just another Spanish teacher, but a precious resource: Almost nobody else had my perspective.

One of my colleagues at Bennington was from Spain. Think about what a treasure that is: Having a professor who is from Spain! If her main interest lies in her own country / culture, why should she talk about anything else? Another of my colleagues was from Puerto Rico. What a great opportunity for the students! No matter where they go, they can never find anyone else who has this person’s take on the world as seen through the history, culture, and traditions of Puerto Rico / Spain. These colleagues’ courses were as completely unlike mine as they themselves were completely unlike me. And they were super.

Your courses won’t be like mine, either. Thank goodness – if they were, then as a teacher, you’d be just an imitation of me. You’re much more than that: You are you. And you’re the only person who can be.

Determining Themes / Accumulating Materials

Probably the most fun part of designing your own curriculum and abandoning textbooks: Make a list of movies, songs, plays, novels, short stories, poems, etc. that you love, and see what common threads unite them. There you are: There’s your theme. Go.

It’s perfectly fine if you don’t see a unifying thread right away, or if it changes as you go along. Or even if it takes you years to build up enough stuff you really love teaching to let go of the textbook altogether. Teaching is an evolutionary process, whether you use a textbook or not – everyone has activities they try once and then swear off of forever, or others that they keep tweaking for years because they’re sure they’re this close to making it really pay off. This is not new or unique to content-based teaching. It’s actually the way you know you’re still engaged with your profession, that you’ve still got your edge.

This is a big precipice to jump off, to be sure. Nobody has planned out my year for me; there’s nowhere I can look to see what I should be doing tomorrow. It’s all up to me. Then again, I have access to the entire world of Spanish-language cultural content. So I look at it as being completely free to pull in and modify as the need arises, or as the mood strikes me. Provided I keep them interested and keep them learning, it doesn’t matter what we explore. We jut have to keep exploring. I love being the only one responsible for my curriculum, the lone guy at the helm deciding what we should explore. It’s like cold, deep water: It turns out to be much more thrilling than it is intimidating. But at some point, you do have to jump in.

If you’d like to see what I’ve come up with for content, check out the Resources page.