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E-books: Essential for Teaching Culture in Foreign Language Classrooms

Editor's Intro: This week, in celebration of International Literacy Day, we are looking at literature to help students understand and respect other cultures. (See also the earlier post on libraries as hubs for learning empathy). Kaitlin E. Thomas, a Lecturer of Spanish at Norwich University and Instructor of Spanish for the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, shares how e-books can be utilizied for teaching culture in foreign language classes.

By guest blogger Kaitlin E. Thomas

Why E-Books

Tackling culture in an adequate and meaningful way is perhaps the most difficult domain to fulfill in a foreign language classroom, particularly for those who are far removed from locales that could provide an immersive outlet. Having long taught in precisely these types of settings, it has been a personal challenge at the start of each new semester to up the ante on how much relevant and worthwhile culture I am able to include for my students, and how I go about doing so.

ebooks.pngAs a self-admitted hoarder of any and all cultural materials that cross my path, I constantly collect snippets in anticipation of incorporating them as part of some lesson plan. A frequent obstacle has been the process of weaving each tidbit into cohesive activities. It often diverges into building a barrage of standalone cultural morsels accessible through a collection of websites, discussion board postings, or emails shared with students. While cultural materials would be studied and discussed, an ability to do all of this in a unified, collaborative, and portable fashion was lacking.

This became an impediment to achieving the level of cultural depth that I aspired to in my classes. I refused to accept that this was the only viable avenue for students to interact with contemporary cultural content. I have discovered that today educators of foreign languages do indeed have access to a truly exhaustive set of options for tools that simulate cultural and linguistic authenticity in remarkably cohesive and accessible capacities.

That is not to say it isn't overwhelming to embark on sifting through all that is available. YouTube? Blogs? Podcasts? Online periodicals? The rate of production for innovative instructional ideas is dizzying, and commonly results in a decision to walk away before the surface has even been scratched. I've realized that for teachers and students alike there is immense value in taping into one particular area: e-books. No longer simply electronic copies of traditional textbooks, there now exists the capacity for e-books to facilitate interactive content that has simply not previously existed. Innovative publishers are revolutionizing what teachers are able to do for and with their students by popularizing catalogs of scholarly e-books designed for real-time, hands-on linguistic and cultural learning in and outside of the classroom.

Features of High-Quality E-Books

By experimenting with different e-book tools and strategies, a few features stand out as superior. The ability to gamify dense grammar material has been invaluable, as have research task based activities like WebQuests. In one of my courses, a series of quests included such virtual scenarios as solving a mystery, investigating a crime, co-staring in a telenovela, planning a surprise party, and a scavenger hunt. Even the capability for students to personalize their own avatar ensures a more personal connection with the tasks being assigned.

Podcasts
In a different course, the students' capability to listen, read, and develop their own content all in one convenient digital e-book setting facilitated the creation of our own interactive podcast series using a combination of Audacity and Timeline. Inspiration for episode styles and formatting came from podcast episodes such as Radio Ambulante, Notes in Spanish, and News in Slow that were embedded directly into the e-book we were using as a supplemental tool.

One example of an e-book featuring thematic podcast episodes is Español avanzado: esuchar para hablar. Students are able to simultaneously listen to the podcast while following along with a full Spanish or English transcript at their disposal. Rather than approach the study of a country from a sterile and distant stance, students are aurally immersed into emotive content that adds character and personality to each locale thus fostering a more intimate understanding, connection, and curiosity. Students delve into contemporary topics of the Spanish-speaking world that simply would not be possible if they are isolated at a far-removed school location or relying on traditional one-dimensional materials.

Maps, Blogs and Periodicals
map of spain.pngOther features that have reformed the way my students interact with cultural information include, collaborative maps which embed informative and up-to-date oral and visual blurbs from travel, political, and contemporary periodicals and blogs for students to hover over and explore. 

Videos
In the book, Español intermedio: con ganas de viajar, short videos from a variety of sources such as MadriDistinto, Mitú, Buzzfeed Spanish, and Pero Like are fixed directly into the e-text to allow a student to watch, learn, reflect, and respond all in one place about topics that traditional textbooks do not have space for and traditional curricula tend to omit. The video content is not stilted or cheesy, another common impediment to student engagement with conventional materials.

Interactive Timelines
Immersive timelines can facilitate a virtual plunge into a topic, transforming it into a bona fide fully audiovisual experiential tour of history, a location, a person, or even a process (such as cooking a traditional recipe). Creating deeply engaging timelines isn't the only possibility for innovative educators to recast how content is presented. Inline audio such as Soundcite, visual comparisons like Juxtapose, and narrative maps similar to StoryMap all offer a depth of instructional potential for educators to explore.

Other Sources of E-Books

If students are interested in delving into a combination of the virtual and traditional, direct them to Amazon's Tienda Kindle or Project Gutenberg where after having developed a strong proficiency in the language and a more profound understanding of culture they can delve into literary e-books (contemporary and classic alike). While perhaps not as visually engaging, they do offer the challenge of pure audio comprehension which can be an exciting milestone to reach in one's foreign language acquisition.

One-dimensionality and disconnection often result when only superficial tokens are used in activities and discussions. How often is Spain boiled down to just bullfighting and flamenco, Mexico to only sombreros and tequila, or Cuba to simply cigars and Che? No more mere tacos, tequila, and mariachi for my students, and no more for yours. Consider how leveraging interactive e-book content for foreign language instructors finally helps to connect the dots in our attempts to provide students with authentic and functional culture in action.

Quote image created on Pablo

Map image courtesy of the author. 

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