Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | December 1, 2008

From Boston To Barcelona (And Back): Teaching Culture Via Email Exchanges, by Jessica Stryhalaleck, MAT-Spanish Student

stryhalaleck“Señora, do all people who speak Spanish eat tacos?”

“Do people wear sombreros all the time?”

“Is Spanish only spoken in Mexico?”

These are the types of questions the students in my 7th grade Spanish class began to ask me last spring. Stunned by the naïveté of their questions, I decided that it was time to reflect upon my own teaching. I quickly came to the conclusion that I needed to incorporate more lessons on culture into my daily classroom activities. As a Spanish teacher, I often feel pressure to cover the essentials of grammar and vocabulary, which unfortunately means that discussions of culture are often squeezed into the last few minutes of a class period, or even omitted altogether. Obviously, though, my students were harboring in their minds various stereotypes about the Spanish language and culture. As an educator, I feel that it is my personal responsibility to help dispel such myths about the language I teach.

Within each unit of our Spanish textbook there are reading passages related to culture, but clearly this was not sufficient – I felt that my students needed something more tangible than a brief article from their textbooks. Over the summer, I did a bit of research to try to determine how best to incorporate the teaching of culture into my middle school classroom. While researching, I discovered www.epals.com, a website which is designed to allow teachers to establish an e-mail exchange between their classroom and a classroom abroad.

In late August, I set up a free user profile with epals.com. In a quick ten minutes, I described my own class and set up parameters for the type of classroom with which I hoped to communicate.

Just a few days later, I received an e-mail from a teacher of English in Barcelona who was interested in setting up an exchange with my 8th grade Spanish class. She and I e-mailed back and forth several times to establish a format for our exchange. We paired up each of our students with an international “e-pal,” and set up a “theme of the month” to help focus our communication.

Each month, our students communicate about a different topic. For example, in September we exchanged e-mails about school life, and in October we wrote about the physical geography of our town and region. Future topics for communication include sports, fashion, holidays, and food.

To ensure the safety of my students, I ask that they each e-mail me their letter directly to my own address, and that they only use their last initial in their letters. I then screen each of my students’ letters individually before pasting them into one single document, which I then e-mail to the teacher in Barcelona. The instructor in Barcelona e-mails me her students’ letters using the same procedure.

Admittedly, the e-mail exchange has had some disadvantages thus far. The exchange is a time-consuming process for the instructor, since all letters need to be collected electronically and screened before they are e-mailed abroad. Also, certain students have been disappointed because not all of our e-pals reciprocated letters in a timely fashion.

However, the benefits of my class’s e-mail exchange are far outweighing the drawbacks thus far. At the beginning of the year, when I described our e-mail exchange, some of my students asked, “But, Señora, are there computers in Spain?” Now, not only do my students realize that there certainly are computers in Spain, but they are also beginning to understand that life in Spain for a teenager is, in many ways, not extraordinarily different than life in the United States. As much as I try to teach my students this crucial lesson on my own, they are learning more enthusiastically from their “amigos internacionales,” rather than from my own personal anecdotes or from cultural passages in their Spanish textbook.

If you feel that you would like to incorporate more instruction of culture into your own classroom, I encourage you to visit www.epals.com. It only takes a few minutes to register, but it will almost certainly give your students a new perspective on life in a foreign country. For some of my students, this is exactly the spark they needed to inspire them to learn Spanish.

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  1. […] From Boston To Barcelona (And Back): Teaching Culture Via Email Exchanges, by Jessica Stryhalaleck, MAT-Spanish Student (p. 12) […]


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