Credit where credit is due: A lot of what I’m about to say here is my condensed version of “Backwards Design,” the classic pedagogy text that everyone seems to refer to, but, from the way most people teach, no one seems to have read.

One of the many things I disliked about my language classes was the way the textbooks tried to infantilize the world of the languages I studied by grouping vocabulary and grammar into thematized chapters. I felt like each unit was organized in the same way as a children’s television program, where every new episode taught a pedantic and predictable lesson about life, most of which I felt like I had already figured out as a child. “It’s OK to be sad sometimes!” “We should be kind to each other!” “Everyone’s a little bit different!” I would roll my eyes and wait for the segment with the cartoon about counting.

I wanted to be intrigued by actual story lines, actual history, actual life. “At the train station” or “In the kitchen” were so sanitized and child-safe. “This is Latin America!”, I would unconsciously rail. “Let’s talk about the conquest!”

Years later, this inclination has been confirmed: The key to keeping students focused on the task at hand, both consciously and unconsciously, is to present them with materials that are actually interesting to them. But another element of this, which hasn’t made it into the literature nearly as clearly, is that the materials we use in class had better also be interesting to the teacher. It’s hard to sell anyone on anything if you yourself don’t believe in it.

So I have organized my syllabi over the years around topics that I myself can’t get enough of. I could talk about them all day long because they’re controversial, they’re complicated, and they affect people’s lives in thrilling dangerous ways. They also have the advantage that, because of the factors I just mentioned, they inspire fantastic works of art.

My favorite themes:

La lucha entre la izquierda política y la derecha política en Latinoamérica (The struggle between the political left and the political right in Latin America)

La migración (migration)

La teología de la liberación (liberation theology)

Controversial, dense, difficult subjects. I do recognize that a lot of people might fear pushback from administration, particularly in public schools, if they approach such subjects with their students; the resistance could also come from families, some of whom do not like the idea of their child being “indoctrinated” by some activist teacher. And I recognize that I have been lucky, in that my public school experience has been, not only in Massachusetts, home of one of the most intellectually free and liberal intellectual cultures in America, but in western Massachusetts – the most liberal corner of the most liberal state in the Union.

But I have also always been careful to present the human side of these subjects much more than the politicized nature of them. There are plenty of ways in which the political right fights for things we can surely all agree on – the rights of the individual. And the left ideally fights for something equally universal: The rights of communities and the well-being of all. My classes try to explore and to discuss the many places where these two understandable ideals come into conflict and the tangled way we as humans have tried to resolve them – without necessarily judging too harshly the adherents of either.

Two examples that illustrate this: In my classroom, I have juxtaposed two posters. One is a reproduction of a portrait of Fidel Castro, painted by Guayasamín, Ecuador’s most famous painter. The other is a blown-up version of the famous photo of Agusto Pinochet, where his arms are crossed and he is wearing his full uniform and sunglasses.

Two leaders in Latin America, with the following things in common:

Violent takeovers of their country’s government.
Decades-long rule by decree in contravention of their stated philosophies.
Violent repression of dissent.
Admired and hated, vociferously, by people in their own country and elsewhere.
Celebrated and scorned when they passed away.

But opposite ends of the political spectrum.

And Castro hangs on the left, while Pinochet hangs on the right.

One more anecdote: Toward the end of her junior year, after having explored numerous films, stories, songs, and articles about the left vs the right, one of my students raised her hand and said she had a question. She asked me in Spanish, but I will translate it here as I remember it:

“So, the left wants to protect the rights of the weak against the rights of the strong, and they want things to be distributed in a way where no one has too much, but no one his too little. Right?”


“And the right wants people to be rewarded for their own labor, and wants to protect each individual’s right to determine his or her own destiny. Right?”


“So, what I want to know is,” she said, her tone going squeaky and frustrated: “Which one is good, and which one is bad?!”

I consider her having posed this unanswerable question – and my never having answered it – as one of my greatest successes as a teacher.

If you’d like to check out the materials I’ve come up with on these various themes, you can check out my Teachers Pay Teachers page here.