My intellectual journey as a language teacher started trying to find valuable answers to some difficult questions that, from my point of view, could or should justify the hard work language teachers do daily inside and outside the classroom. Questions, such as, ‘how many people can recall life-changing experiences in language courses, or can point to a concrete element learned inside a language classroom that became a relevant cultural practice in their professional development?’ led me to rethink the way students are expected to learn, the goals university administrators expect to be achieved by language departments, and the changing role of Spanish language teachers in the American education system.
As a result of my own reflection on the most feasible approach to teaching a language in the United States, I found out that the communicative approach was a perfect framework to enhance language learners’ quality of experience. Focusing on form and meaning by contextualizing the language became the skeletal structure on which to build my lesson planning, as well as the axis of all my activities as language coordinator, instructor, and Study Abroad Co-Director during my graduate experience at Penn State. In concrete, the communicative approach opened for me a new window of opportunity to change the dynamics in the classroom effectively flipping the roles that are usually attributed to instructors and students. Learners’ needs and backgrounds became a crucial element in designing language courses under my charge. For example, instead of repeating chunks of information, the learner became the center of his/her individual process of acquisition, thus regaining agency in the process of acquiring a second language. Additionally, my role as a language teacher underwent a huge transformation, since I became a facilitator and supporter of my students during their own process of language acquisition.
In September of 2009, and upon becoming a member of the Princeton Language Program, I decided to implement the same teaching methodology that had become very valuable in my previous teaching experiences. I concretely redesigned the SPA107 syllabus in the fall of 2010, by acquiring a new textbook and introducing the first online platform utilized in the Spanish Language Program replacing former paper copies of the workbook. After changing the contents and updating the technological tools used to learn a second language, SPA107 became the perfect learning object to illustrate the advantages that flipping the classroom activities can bring to the course dynamics. And, at the same time, this teaching methodology brought to the surface its own limitations. My observations about this teaching approach lead me to conclude that when the communicative approach is applied in an intensive five-days a week course, with unmotivated students whose main objective is to complete the last course of the University language requirement, it becomes an almost useless methodology. Additionally, I concluded that cultural materials should not be selected by an external editorial house, with a vague knowledge of the needs of a course with these characteristics. And, finally, I detected a gap between students’ interests dictated by their current profiles as active participants in a global culture, and the textbook contents, which ultimately had a direct impact on students’ language experience.
My contribution as Acting Associate Director of the Language Program at Princeton University (2011-2012) allowed me to explore new approaches to teaching Spanish that could lead me to establish new pedagogical goals to address the needs of Princeton students in a global era. For instance, I progressively implemented practical changes to tackle the clear disconnection between the weight we were attributing to the form, the ancillary value we were placing on cultural contents, and the absence of intercultural competences explored in the classroom.
I was able to translate all these teaching experiences when I redesigned SPA108, an intermediate-level course. I re-conceptualized the design of this course around two Spanish-speaking cities: Mexico City and Los Angeles. I selected a variety of current, innovative and productive cultural materials to be married to the appropriate functional, grammatical and lexical contents described in the ACFTL guidelines. After several months of work, I was able to successfully intersect the Cultural Studies epistemological framework with the functional language contents of SPA108 that students are supposed to review in order to reach an intermediate-level of proficiency. This intellectual activity allowed me to better understand the Socio-Politics of teaching languages in the United States. It also made me conscious of the new challenges language educators face in a global era, and helped me to comprehend how important the education of foreign language students with strong transcultural competences has become. Additionally, exploring Mexico City’s and Los Angeles’ fluxing and complex identities showed me that teaching a second language in America is an arduous intellectual endeavor that requires a committed faculty and good communication between the members of the faculty body.