5 more ways to center culture in your world languages curriculum
In my Spanish classroom, teaching culture is everything.
Those of you who read my previous classroom activity suggestions already know that all of my curriculum begins and ends with learning about the people, places, and cultures of the Spanish-speaking world.
I find that each time I begin with culture, reinforce culture through language learning, and give students agency in deciding what aspects of culture they want to study, my students walk away from the experience with global and language learning that sticks.
Looking for new ideas to teach culture in your classroom? Keep reading for five more activities and strategies that will help you keep culture in the front seat of your students’ language-learning journey.
1. Get Students Excited About Travel
Travel is inherently exciting, so harness this energy and put it to use in your culture-driven classroom!
Culture-Driven Activity Idea 1: Write Travel Journals
Ask students to keep semester-long travel journals where they write about different landmarks they have visited (virtually).
Ask specific questions for students to respond to and challenge them to say as much as they can in their target language. Novice sentences might sound like this: I visited Barcelona. I went to La Sagrada Familia. I looked at the beautiful windows.
Students get to practice the language and learn about the world outside their classroom!
Culture-Driven Activity Idea 2: Keep Passports
As an added bonus, ask students to make passports and give them stamps or stickers for completing country or region profiles during class or through independent research. Incorporating small art projects like this allows students to build vocabulary and practice following instructions in the target language.
2. Ask Compelling Questions
We’re all used to asking our students how they’re doing or what they did over the weekend, but focusing on teaching culture means that we ask culturally relevant questions that let students share what they have learned.
Culture-Driven Activity Idea 3: Ask Culture-Related Questions
1. Which country or region would you prefer to visit based on recent learning experiences?
2. How would you want to travel there?
3. Who would you want to go with?
4. What would you like to see, eat, or do there?
Even if students only have surface knowledge of a place, they can often express their own opinions and desires. And if you ask them about a place they have studied, they’ll be even more informed and engaged.
3. Literature is Your Friend
All literature is, by default, cultural, so it’s a great resource for exploring places and people!
Culture-Driven Activity Idea 4: Explore Locations in Literature
When guiding your students through a story or novel, take some time to explore the story’s location through the use of newspapers, maps, and travel resources.
My second-year middle school students were excited when they recognized that the poster of Parque Güell on the classroom wall just happened to be where a pivotal scene in our class novel had taken place. All of a sudden, this park wasn’t just a popular site featuring the works of Antoní Gaudí. It was a real place featuring characters they cared about and a story they were familiar with. Literature gave them insider knowledge to connect more deeply to a place, a culture, and a language.
Culture-Driven Activity Idea 5: Write Stories
Your class can author a story that takes place in a target language city. Once you have collaborated, have students write or share their own travel stories or those of family members who have traveled. These stories are often funny and are great for classroom community-building as well as strengthening language skills.
4. Get Musical
Music is a powerful tool in the language classroom, not least of all because it increases student buy-in. Songs and music videos are short but vivid snapshots of culture, and many of them provide the opportunity to learn a dance step or two, which is a great opportunity to practice following instructions in the target language.
Culture-Driven Activity Idea 6: Use Music to Facilitate Output
As a class, discuss where an artist is from, what languages they speak, what their musical influences are, and what they convey with their music. At the end of the school year, you can ask your students to describe their favorite songs or even write and perform their own songs based on the musical styles they most enjoyed.
Culture-Driven Activity Idea 7: Hold "Famous Person Fridays"
In a similar vein, you could have your students follow a musician, artist, athlete, politician, writer, actor, or influencer of their choice on social media and provide updates on “Famous Person Fridays.” This will not only provide a deep dive into culture and language, it will also connect students to a country, region, or culture in a way that feels relevant and contemporary.
5. Rethink Grammar
If, while reading this article, you wondered where in my teaching I place grammar instruction, you’re probably not alone! The short answer is, I teach grammar in context.
By rooting all of my lessons in culture and teaching grammar when it is relevant and necessary, students come to understand how grammar functions in an authentic context, i.e., how grammar is actually used to communicate. I’ve found that this in-context approach broadens students’ understanding and use of the target language, and it has a better chance of sticking with them than out-of-context drills and worksheets.
Culture-Driven Activity Idea 8: Learn Grammar in Songs
For example, as Carlos Vives and Sebastián Yatra sing about four different types of love stories in Robarte un beso, students look for and listen for messages using the preterite or imperfect tense. For novice learners, provide a list of the verbs or structures to find in advance. If watching the music video, pause it in order to ask students to describe the people and their relationships.
Culture-Driven Activity Idea 9: Use a Map
Use an interactive map to allow students to give walking directions to each other from their respective locations in the city of your choice in order to master tú form commands. They might want to meet at the park, pharmacy or museum. When they reach their destination, they enjoy a local meal, a chat, or a virtual tour of the landmark.
The possibilities are limitless, and as you start (or continue) to center culture in your classroom, you’ll figure out what grammar lesson best fits each activity.
Is placing culture at the center of everything I do in my classroom the right choice?
For me, the proof is in the pudding. And by “pudding” I am, of course, referring to student feedback.
Students often return years later and say that they will never forget learning the Bachata and teaching it to their classmates. Others laugh at how their first attempt at making a tres leches cake flopped, but their peers wrote them a good review anyway. They also tell me that what they learned in Spanish class influenced the education and career choices they made later on.
I’m interested to hear how you are centering culture in your world language classes and how your students are responding. I'd be happy to answer questions or share resources, so leave a comment with the Language Is Limitless Facebook group, where you can find me and other world language educators!
Nicole Hartung teaches middle school Spanish at Winchester Thurston School, an independent school in Pittsburgh, PA. She has worked with children of all ages since 1995 in both academic and faith-based settings. Nicole has taught Spanish levels pre-K through high school. She is an alum of the University of Pittsburgh, and studied abroad in Seville, Spain, when pesetas were still the currency. Nicole built a pen pal program for her students and students in Cuenca, Ecuador. She strives to inspire life-long learning in her students through meaningful work and global connections. Nicole has published the CI Spanish reader "Sebas en el patio."Explore more related to this author