Relevance through media literacy

Superstorm Sandy blew through my state this week. Luckily, in my area there was relatively little damage and fewer power outages than during Winter Storm Alfred and Tropical Storm Irene last year. School was canceled for two days, and my original lesson plans had to be scrapped. I knew that when classes resumed on Halloween, my students would not be at all interested in the topics we'd been discussing for days: comparisons of American and Spanish governments (Spanish 4) and current global issues (AP Spanish 6). They'd be wanting to talk about either Halloween or Sandy. Or both. So? If the mountain will not come to Mohammed...

For AP, I decided to discuss Sandy. These students have been exposed to Spanish-language news media in class for the last week and a half or so as part of the Global Challenges unit; using presidential election coverage by media outlets in Spain (El País) and the U.S. (CNN en español and Fox News Latino), we have already discussed how bias is transmitted, and how perspectives on news topics vary within the same country as well as among different countries. The current language focus is a review of verb tenses--I'm hoping to help them fine-tune their control of perfect and progressive time frames--so I used an article about Sandy that modeled present, perfect and progressive tenses. I divided the article into four parts, and had students work in groups of four to jigsaw the article (one person read one part and summarized it for their group members and so on). Then, I made a graphic organizer modeling chronological uses of the tenses, which they had to fill out with examples from the article as well as their own experiences. (Since we also spent half of the period in the language lab working on a project--more about that in another post--this was all I had time for in this class.) The article provided them with topical vocabulary--huracán, apagón, inundación, soplar el viento, etc--as well as a model for verb use. Though we didn't dig as deeply into this article as we have into other articles about more controversial topics, my students showed that they could learn vocabulary by context and draw on Spanish-language news resources to talk about their own lives.

In my Spanish 4 class, I went with Halloween. I found an article about stereotyping in costumes on La Matraca magazine (originally published on CNN Mexico) and my students used Lingro to identify words they didn't know in the article during our half-period of language lab time. Back in the classroom, they turned-and-talked with their seat partners to discuss what the article was about; I then cold-called them to check for understanding. Next, I gave them a series of agree-or-disagree statements in Spanish such as "Dressing in costume is fun" or "There are offensive costumes at our school." Then they had to explain to their partners why they agreed or disagreed with each statement. Finally, they had to fill in the blank with an adjective to complete the impersonal expression. One example is "It's _________ that people dress up in insensitive costumes." (This continued the modeling of the present subjunctive that I had introduced the week before using the government context.) Finally, they had to find a new partner with whom they shared an opinion, and discuss whether they thought offensive costumes was a serious problem in our school and how it could be resolved. During the lesson, students pointed out that what was offensive to some would not necessarily be offensive to others, and we discussed where the line would be. Would it be the same for you, if you are white, as for someone of, say, Mexican or Japanese descent? They agreed that it might not. For a few minutes, at least, they considered the topic from others' perspectives. If I'd had more time, I might have asked them to determine who the article's audience is, and if they fit into that "type." Would their reaction have been different if they had identified with a non-mainstream culture?

Returning today to the discussion of government in Spanish 4, I gave students another news article, this one about a paternity suit against the King of Spain, which was rejected by Spanish courts because, according to Spanish law, the King is "inviolable and not subject to responsibility." This led to an interesting discussion (again employing impersonal expressions with the subjunctive) about whether national leaders should be subject to the same laws as everyone else.

One issue that I struggle with in the lower levels is finding level-appropriate media sources that also mesh with curricular topics--and, if I'm really lucky, model the targeted language structures. I used to modify articles, but I think that students need to become accustomed to reading authentic, un-school-ified language. I gloss the articles, do pre-reading activities like introducing topics with interesting hooks and discussions and making predictions, as well as having students turn-and-talk about what they totally get, kind of get, and don't get, but I still find that the affective barrier goes way up if the article is any more than 25% new language.

Do you use news media in your lessons? How? What works? What do you struggle with?

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