Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Introducing Tomás Rivera to High School Students

The following is a guest post by the talented Kali Lin of For the Love of Spanish.

This year, I am entering my first year of homeschooling with my oldest child. I’m also entering my last year of teaching Spanish to my youngest brother—a homeschool senior.

When it comes to working with high-school students, I know I have a lot to learn. My experience with the high-school age is limited to the few small classes of homeschool students I have taught Spanish to over the last five years or so. I have enjoyed those classes a lot. But when it came to getting students excited about Spanish or Spanish-speaking cultures it sometimes felt a bit like pulling teeth.

Sure. They would do their homework and get good grades. They would turn in assignments and read the assigned passages in The House on Mango Street. I can deal with students begrudgingly doing grammar exercises because they have to. But when it comes to sharing the culture of the language—I want something different this year.

The Case for Culture

Learning about culture should make the classroom come alive. Culture is where the love for the language is born. Some teachers consider culture to be the “Fifth Skill” of the foreign language classroom, and it could probably be argued that it is the most important skill.

Usually, in my classes, we learn about Spain and Mexican-American cultures the most. Spain because the language originated there, and Mexican-American culture because it’s closest to home and can be found all around us. Each year, I pick a literary text that introduces the culture we’re learning about.

This year that text is …y no se lo tragó la tierra/…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him by Tomás Rivera. I’ve never taught this text so I’m pretty excited! Usually, we read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (which I love). What’s different about …y no se lo tragó la tierra/…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, is that it was originally written in Spanish. The beautiful English translation accompanies it in the back of the book. Both books are coming-of-age novels that shed an effective light on a distinct place in history and culture.

Charlotte Mason says of biographies, “Let him, on the contrary, linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until he thinks the thoughts of that man, is at home in the ways of that period. Though he is reading and thinking of the lifetime of a single man, he is really getting intimately acquainted with the history of a whole nation for a whole age.” (Home Education, Vol. 1 Part XVIII.–History, p.280)

The Chicano Experience

Although …y no se lo tragó la tierra/…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him is not a biography of a historical character, the fictional biography that Rivera tells serves just as well to document the lives of Mexican-American migrant workers of the 1940s and 1950s—an important part of the Mexican-American experience that should be told and should be known.

Now that I’ve made the case for teaching culture in the high school Spanish classroom, and teaching it from a literary text rather than a textbook, we can talk about how to make it happen.

1. Read Shorter Passages

Normally I would assign students large passages of reading to do on their own at home, have them fill in pages with discussion questions, and then we would come back together as a class and discuss. We might dedicate one or two classes to discussing the book — because time spent on the book felt like time away from the grammar that they had to learn by the end of the year. Discussions always felt forced and stale, and now I’m beginning to wonder if it was because we had read through too fast, not lingered enough with each chapter, not allowed ourselves time to think and get a feel for what the text was trying to say.

The book has 27 chapters; few enough to read one per week and get through it. Doesn’t it sound like a neat opportunity to spend an entire year getting to know the author’s voice, letting each scene and passage soak in from week to week?

2. Read Aloud

Over the summer I read a few articles and listened to a few podcasts about the power of reading aloud. I think by the time students are in high school we expect them to do most of their work independently, but I thought it would be better to let this culture piece be a shared experience. The joy of reading will be the focus. Students won’t feel like the reading is work. They may simply listen and enjoy the story.

3. Narrate Each Passage After Each Reading

I’ve been immersing myself in Charlotte Mason’s writings and methods this summer (in preparation for our own homeschool this year). Narration is a device she suggests to help students become active listeners with what they read and to become self-teachers. Reading shorter passages will lend itself well to narration.

4. Read & Narrate in Both Languages

Because the text has both languages together in one book, and we are reading one chapter at a time, I will be able to read in both languages. Not only will we get to hear the beautiful stories in the language they were written, we will get a chance to learn Spanish while we’re at it and practice narrating in the target language.

5. Understand the Text Historically

Getting to know the time in which the story was written and the time in which the story is placed makes reading the story a richer experience. We will watch videos like this one from Annenberg Learner to understand the migrant struggle and learn about eco-literature; we will use this interview with Arturo Madrid to get another Mexican-American perspective; we will research the Chicano experience; we will read stories from Latino in America by Soledad O’Brien to see how things have changed (or not) for Mexican-Americans. I’m really excited for the year, and if you’re looking for a great piece of American Literature to add to your high schooler’s syllabus this year, I highly recommend …y no se lo tragó la tierra/…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him. If you do read it, I’d love for you to connect with me and share your thoughts about it! You can find me on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

What literature do you use in your classroom to introduce culture?


Born and raised in Kansas City, Kali took Spanish in college and fell in love with it -- especially after spending time studying in Costa Rica & Spain and volunteering in Peru.  Once graduated, she began sharing her love of Spanish through her blog, For the Love of Spanish, and by teaching Spanish to local homeschool students. This year, she embarks on her first year of homeschooling her own children with the goal of raising them and educating them bilingually.


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