Bringing Current Issues to Life in the World Language Classroom

This past Thursday, we had a great discussion on the best ideas on how to engage world language students with current issues and events in the classroom, and participants shared lots of great resources and tips.

As always, please feel free to share the summary and #langchat with your colleagues and fellow language enthusiasts. If you have any thoughts or would like to add your own voice to the discussion, join us in the comments box below. We’d love to hear from you!

Issues vs. Events

We first discussed whether “current issues” and “current events” were one and the same. Participants explained the two as related, but not identical. @pamwesely defines current issues as systemic and persistent phenomena, like poverty, racism or ecotourism. Current events are happenings, such as the tsunami in Japan and the Chilean miner rescue. Events can occur within and define issues.

As far as resources go, current issues are usually easier to find materials on due to their longer lifespan. Current events actually make great resources when discussing a current issue.

Educating Yourself

When we’ve decided to discuss current issues with out students, @profesorM reminds us that we must first educate ourselves. For Spanish speakers, try reading local Spanish-language newspapers to keep abreast of what’s going on — also a possible source of articles for your students (@SECottrell).

For all languages, try switching your trending topics in Twitter to one of the target language countries. This is a simple way to learn about some possible topics for class. Also, @SECottrell recommends typing several of your target keywords into Google News for a list of some pertinent sources.

For more information on finding authentic resources in the classroom, check out these past #langchat discussions on Authentic Resources for Novice Learners and Presenting Culture in the Classroom.

Introducing Issues to Your Students

To seamlessly introduce the current issue or event to the classroom in an engaging way, try weaving the topic into project, an assessment or a set of assessments (@SECottrell). @placido likes to connect current issues and events to novels, movies and music. @karacjacobs will often start the subject with a video and music to get students interested, then delve into the details.

The topic should also be one that the students care about. Either show them how this topic affects their lives or pick a subject that they’re engaged in in their first language. For an example of the former, immigration in the US is a strong issue for Spanish students.

Keep in mind that the more sources and materials you use, the more overwhelmed students can feel (@SECottrell). It may be better to use fewer sources and focus on learning the topic well rather than flooding students with resources.

Engaging Resources and Activities for Current Issues

Whenever possible, use authentic resources when discussing current issues or events. Authentic resources not only expose your students to native speaking and writing habits, but they also give students the unique opportunity to see how other cultures perceive the same issue. Participants shared some of their best ideas below.

@karacjacobs has her students use Twitter to follow current issues in the target language. For example, they recently began following #nomasFARC in class.

  •  @placido makes screenshots of clever or informative target language tweets so she doesn’t have to worry about filters and she controls the content.
  • To collect tweets in a visually pleasing program, try Storify (@CalicoTeach).

@NinaTanti1 sometimes likes to start classes with a short news video or recording in the target language. Authentic videos are a great source of news as well as a perfect listening exercise.

  • @karacjacobs suggests using the Univision app, on iPhones or iPads, to watch Spanish-language videos in the classroom or at home. Lots of participants suggested BBC Mundo for Spanish-language news.
  • News in Slow French and News in Slow Spanish are useful resources for students hear the news being spoken at a pace that they’re comfortable with (@lindseybp and @SECottrell). Deutsche Welle does German news at a slow and clear pace, as well.

@hugghinss likes to use the El País newspaper app for higher-level Spanish classes.

@lindseybp uses a word cloud generator like Wordle to create a visual representation of a current issue or event to serve multiple purposes. It works great for summarizing articles, giving students lists of the target terms or just as a fun way to introduce the topic.

For lessons on current events, @pamwesely puts students in groups and prepare lessons. Each week a different small group must choose something in the news to present.

  • @tiesamgraf prints small articles on the theme and gives every student a different one. After reading, students need to report back on what they’ve learned. @erindebell gives students multiple newspapers and lets them choose which article interests them.

For lower levels, try making cloze activities of a news recording or video (@NinaTanti1).

Examples of Current Issues and Events in the Classroom

For issues, choose topics that students can identify with. Issues have been in the news for a while, so there are lots of resources and discussions to have. Remember to make sure that your students can relate to the topic.

  • Immigration is a great topic for Spanish learners. In some places, immigration is a local issue.
  • Narcotrafficking and the drug war — both at home and abroad — are good topics, especially if students are preparing to visit Mexico during vacation (@esantacruz13).
  • Bullfighting is always popular in Spanish classes.
  • Global warming and other environmental changes are fantastic topics for all languages.

For events, choose topics that the students are likely to discuss or hear discussed outside of class for maximum engagement.

  • The “Arab Spring” protests were a popular subject in several classes.
  • The state of the European Union at the moment is a common topic for all European language learners.
  • Try watching and following the marches and protests in Colombia through video, Twitter and news sites.
  • The Chilean miner rescue last year was a hit in @placido’s Spanish 3. Her students still tak about it.

For all issues and events, participants suggested teaching and introducing the subjects in an impartial manner so as to avoid giving students a set way to think about the subject. It’s important to get kids thinking and asking their own questions. @SECottrell says the best questions to ask a class are the ones that have no clear answer.

Problems with Bringing Current Topics to the Classroom

While discussing current issues and events in the classroom is an overwhelmingly positive thing, teachers do run into issues from time to time.

The major issue that most participants mentioned is the time commitment. You might spend hours preparing for an hour-long class, and then the material will have expired and be unusable for future years.

  • One way around this is to focus more on current issues than events. Current issues, being longer-lived, can be used over and over again. Of course, current issues also will expire eventually, but how long has immigration been a hot-button topic in America?
  • Another workaround is to use an issue as the backdrop for an entire unit. This way, the resources that you collect have more value for a longer period. @placido recommends finding a lasting resource and then choosing new current issues or events every year to connect to it.

Teaching current events and issues to older, advanced students is one thing — but how can we ensure that young or novice-level students get engaged and can comprehend the material? Since the key is to remain in the target language as much as possible, this can be difficult for students.

  • @placido recommends preteaching vocabulary, making personal connections between students and the info, and teaching in a simple way. Images help a lot! She uses lots of structured conversations and teacher questions and gives students multiple choices.
  • @SECottrell likes authentic news videos and audio, as the standard speaking rate and tone help students to always understand something.
  • @CalicoTeach suggests that if students are up-to-date on the event or issue in their native language, this can provide some excellent scaffolding to learn the new vocabulary in the target language.
  • @tiesamgraf keeps lower-level classes’ treatment of the issue or event more broad, so the language and terms are simpler.

A note, however: for younger students, remember that current events are often not as appealing. The world is their family and their immediate surroundings; focus there (@CalicoTeach). For current topics that appeal to them the most, try holidays, events such as the Olympics and sports.

Further Reading

Check out @placido’s ACTFL 2011 handout on providing authentic resources to novice learners.

@joedale suggested looking into @alenord’s wiki on authentic resources.

@SECottrell shared her list of ecotourism links for Spanish units on the environment.

@placido shared several songs that relate to current issues in Spanish.

Thank You!

Wow, some great ideas and discussion as always! Thanks to all of our participants for showing up and sharing your experiences in the classroom. #Langchat wouldn’t be the excellent professional development tool it is without your contributions! For the full chat, check out our archive.

As always, the discussion isn’t over. Please, share your best ideas for introducing current issues and events to the world language classroom in the comments below. Where do you go to find engaging authentic resources to share with your students? How do you keep up to date on issues in the target cultures?

Thanks again, everyone, and see you next week at 8:00 EST!

#LangChat is an independent group of world-language education professionals who come together every week via Twitter to share ideas and discuss pressing issues in the world of education. Check out the #LangChat wiki for more information about our goals and the team behind it all here. These weekly discussion summaries are sponsored by Calico Spanish as a service to the world-language community.

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