Yo Soy Porque Tú Eres: Learning Spanish through cultural and community lenses
The Borders & Languages program has partnered with the Center of Southwest Studies to use historical letters, maps, and other archives written in Spanish to innovate a contextualized curriculum for teaching and learning a language.
Daniela Acosta lifted centuries-old maps from a drawer. She was looking for one in particular, a rendering in Spanish dated to 1677, which depicted the region of California as an island separate from North America. “Here it is!”
Isola di California.
The map is part of the archives at the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College and is one of many distinct resources that Assistant Professor Carolina Alonso will begin using in her Spanish classes next fall. Alonso received nearly $100,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a free digital platform to teach Spanish using humanities collections, archives, and other unique materials—and the CSWS is a honey pot of resources.
“It’s mind-blowing all the possibilities we have with the Center,” says Alonso, who teaches courses in the Borders & Languages, Sociology & Human Services, and Gender & Sexuality Studies programs. “We think of high-impact learning as leaving campus, but there’s so much here in the Center’s archives. At FLC, we can break this model of textbook learning just by going to the Center.”
Traditionally, language programs are taught using grammar-focused textbooks only, an approach that lacks the vibrancy of real-life scenarios. With the help of Acosta, a sophomore who is assisting with resource acquisition this semester, Alonso is using CSWS archives and other open access resources to develop an open educational resource (OER) hub to teach Spanish in a more authentic and contextualized way.
“We want to change this idea of learning Spanish from just a textbook,” says Alonso. “Yes, we’re teaching grammar, but we’re using resources, like maps and letters, to create lessons beyond the language and within the context of the Southwest.”
When students learn Spanish in context—Hispano, Chicano, Latinx—the language is more likely to stick. The OER hub will be organized around themes of identity, trauma and resistance, and traditional knowledge. Alonso said students retain more when their lived experiences are reflected in the curriculum.
“We have so many students of color [at Fort Lewis College] and they want to use Spanish for social issues, law school, or social work,” says Alonso. “And when we talk about traditional knowledge within the Spanish culture, our Native American students connect with the lessons too.”
Acosta, a native Spanish speaker who took The Wild Tongue: Intermediate Spanish with Alonso last year, says her Spanish writing skills improved when she was engaged in work beyond just reading a textbook.
“Visuals helped make it easier to remember, as did working with others and being included in the lessons,” she says. “It was nice to tie back to my roots and connect with classmates who want to learn about aspects of my culture while they’re learning a second language.”
Alonso has an eye for academic reimagining. She’s been at FLC since 2016, arriving as the College was losing students and funds, putting Spanish and other language programs at risk. Alonso, with Assistant Professor of Modern Languages David Vásquez-Hurtado and Professor of Sociology & Human Services Janine Fitzgerald, re-envisioned the Spanish degree into Borders & Languages, a culturally and academically aligned program that teaches bilingual instruction alongside intercultural analyses.
Now, with the NEH grant (written by Alonso and Fitzgerald), the program is once again transforming in a radical way. Reflected in the grant’s title, Yo Soy Porque Tú Eres: recursos para el aprendizaje de Español en contexto (I am because you are: Spanish resources for Spanish language learning in context), is the notion that language is much more than a skill; it is a part of who we are. To promote knowledge of other languages, learners must feel ownership over the language.
The project builds on the digital pedagogy being used in Borders & Languages, taking U.S Hispano/Latinx digitized resources to comprise the classroom texts where students will engage with the material by adding their own interpretations, experiences, and information. And it won’t be for FLC students only, Alonso says: “We want anybody, affiliated with a college or not, to be able to access the hub, including instructors.”
"A lot of colleges and high schools are struggling with the same things, wanting to teach more authentically but they don’t have the time or resources. They’ve hit a wall with textbooks, but we’ll be able to change that with this open hub."
Alonso has NEH funding for two years. The first year has been dedicated to finding resources, collaborating with other institutions in Arizona, Nebraska, and New Mexico, and building the hub. In the second year, Alonso will be ready to widely share and test the OER.
“We hope for it to be used in different places in the U.S., Mexico, and Latin America,” Alonso says.
The OER hub will use resources with Creative Commons licensing to ensure open access, and users will be able to download materials free of charge.
“A lot of colleges and high schools are struggling with the same things, wanting to teach more authentically but they don’t have the time or resources,” Alonso says. “They’ve hit a wall with textbooks, but we’ll be able to change that with this open hub.”