Diversity, equity and inclusion and our Spanish textbook

Since we general education language courses at a liberal arts college, we hope to make a Spanish textbook that reflects our liberal arts values, including the institutions’ priority of fostering a diverse, equitable, and inclusive community. The recent meetings and workshops on our campus focusing on these issues have encouraged me to think about how our Spanish textbook can reflect these values.

Although in a draft form, we are pondering the following mission:

Mission: Our text is an open educational, content-forward resource for first-semester students of Spanish that seeks to foster an appreciation of the Spanish-speaking world and contributions of Latinos to American society while developing novice-mid proficiency in productive skills and novice-high proficiency in receptive skills.

An “appreciation of the Spanish-speaking world” is multifaceted because it requires an understanding of the diverse individuals, groups, and ideas that have shaped society. To appreciate starts with identifying the contributions of others, then recognizing their value. Knowing the value of those who are different from us can be difficult especially when we don’t or can’t recognize their contributions. For this reason, students will learn about Spanish-speaking individuals and groups with diverse cultural identities.

On the one hand, I am excited about this project, on the other hand, it will take time to create a text that genuinely fosters the values of the liberal arts and facilitate students’ language acquisition.

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IRB and Interviewing the Community

January: Since we are interviewing Spanish-speaking community members in the Reading community and using those interviews in our OER text, we submitted a proposal to Albright’s IRB but were exempted since the interviews are informational. Nevertheless, writing the IRB proposal helped us better define the interview questions we will ask and write the letter of consent for the participants. Additionally, the NIH training that was necessary to submit the IRB proposal adverted us of the best practice for collecting information from participants. Although it was time-consuming to put together the proposal, the effort was not wasted.

We are now working on the learning outcomes for our OER course that is informed by the liberal arts tradition and content-based learning as students acquire elementary Spanish proficiency.

I am also preparing to give a FaculTea on Thursday, February 8th, Spanish 101 for the Liberal Arts: The Making of an Open-Source Textbook”.

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Spanish 101 in the Liberal Arts

Is there a better way to teach Spanish that actually matches the goals of the Liberal Arts? Often elementary Spanish courses are taught to a grammar-focused textbook that relegates the cultural lessons to the side as “did you know” trivia. Since Spanish 101 (and the same for other romance language basic language courses) are thought of as memory courses that favor the middle-school spelling-bee champions or the students who have mastered the art of mnemonic devices to recall random vocabulary. Unfortunately,  standard textbooks encourage foreign language instructors to focus on grammar instruction over cultural content. When we run out of time, the first thing we cut is the cultural content. But an examination of the content is what allows students of the most elementary levels to develop higher-order thinking skills. Although foreign language courses belong to the “communication skills” category in general education plans at many institutions, even the basic language course should be a content course.

For, this reason my colleague (Janice Rodriguez) and I, and with departmental collaboration, have decided to create an open source textbook for Elementary Spanish built on the foundations of the liberal arts and responds to the 2007 MLA Report’s call for “content from the beginning; language to the end.”

The Summer Teaching and Learning Grant and the generous technology resources and brainpower provided by IT Services will allow us to create an OER textbook that can be adapted for use by other liberal arts institutions.

May: My colleagues and I began to research open education resources to better understand what is involved and what kinds of platforms we could use to deliver the textbook. It was fascinating to understand the differences in terms of editable and non-editable content, authorship, etc.

June: We met to discuss a basic outline for the textbook that would still address the necessary communication goals of the novice level and the cultural content that could be collected locally and through OER platforms. We decided to focus on cultural content that would be most interesting to Albright students, an ethnically and geographically diverse student body. We are thinking about highlighting businesses, since it is a way to include several interests that would also allow us to find authentic cultural content. An example includes fashion (buying and designing clothes). Or we could highlight content from the different foundations courses (100-level gen ed)  at Albright: fine arts, humanities, the sciences, social sciences, mathematical reasoning. We are looking for a way write content and assessments that encourage to think critically about the world even if the expression of their thoughts is limited by language. It is possible by choosing the right images, graphs, and other non-linguistic content. So the question: What cultural content will foster higher-order thinking skills and what linguistic content will most enable them to express themselves?

July: I primarily worked on course preparation for my fall courses since they were all new courses for me. I did not work on the OER textbook project besides reading through textbooks that have already been produced online such as a a resource through the BBC and resources. I also looked through databases that have open source editable content that we can use for our own textbook.

August: We met to work on the student learning objectives of SPA 101 that were based more on observable and therefore assessable performance goals.

I decided to enroll in a graduate education course at Albright. The entire course is on assessment. The course is really helping me to better outline goals and objectives based on the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) standards and develop the most appropriate assessments for those goals.

September: In collaboration with my colleague, Janice Rodriguez, we have began by creating our own content to supplement the textbook content. This is the first step to creating enough content to produce a text that is completely independent of any other textbook. We are using several examples of authentic content and are creating assessments that assess higher-order thinking skills (Bloom’s Taxonomy).

October: I started IRB Application. I attended the Pennsylvania Foreign Language Conference where I got several ideas on authentic content for the textbook.

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Reading Resilience

Over the past two months, I have read and outlined the primary and secondary texts for the Synthesis course on resilience I’m planning to propose and hope to teach next spring or the following fall. In Teachers as Intellectuals, Henry Giroux argues that it is the responsibility of teachers to practice a critical pedagogy that directs student attention not only to the text but also to the process of production of cultural meaning and to the politics of the educational institution (86-107). My efforts at organizing the course readings and writing assignments around the idea of the quest for a documentable past have led me to the decision to frame each of the readings with questions. In the past, I have given students the questions I want them to wrestle with and answer, but for this upper-level, capstone course, I am planning to try a new pedagogical approach. To the extent that I’ve framed the curriculum of former courses thereby implicitly shaping the questions, I realize now that my doing so in a Synthesis course may produce an enormous chasm between my hope for a natural, critical learning environment. To bridge that gap, to reach the students educationally, my goal is to find ways to link my disciplinary concerns and interests with those of the students (and their various) as a means of modeling for them that all of the answers may not be found in one discipline alone. To that end, I will be  framing some questions only as a way of inviting students to raise their own thereby capturing, hopefully, their imagination while also challenging some of their most cherished paradigms. Since my plan is to anticipate questions about resilience that will already be on the minds of the students. At the outset of the semester, I plan to ask the students, “when/where did resilience originate?” With this question, I intend to subtly shift the agenda from the issue of resilience to one of history. I want to raise questions that will help my students reason through the process of examining the complex layers that inform the characteristics and study of resilience and to think about how to answer them.

Besides my awareness of and sensitivity to students’ weighty questions about identity and resilience and my goal of promoting deep learning approaches that will help my students learn inductively, moving from fascinating and important questions to general principles of the conversant disciplines out of which our classroom engagement with the texts and each other will grow, the course readings will be structured around three five-week units. Students will meet for 80 minutes twice a week and will be required to read approximately 100 pages per week. Although the reading load is heavy, the pace fast, and the syllabus ambitious, the course objectives are achievable.

For Unit 1: Theological Revelation and Resilience, students will read The Odyssey, Inferno, the Bhagavad Gita, and the biblical stories of Joseph and Job as a means of probing the ancient roots of human resilience and reflecting on higher theological and metaphysical realities. Relative ideas about the spiritual attributes that helped people in the past master change successfully and bounce back when the tough got going as well as actions that enabled them to grow, thrive and experience higher levels of well-being will be explored through questions centered on religious revelation.

In Unit 2: Adversity and Resilience, the focus will be the inseparable connections between failure, suffering and modern concepts of grit; the role of self-examination in the journey to what psychologists call “personal hardiness”; and trans-generational attitudes toward personal responsibility. Readings will be from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Jhuma Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Derek Walcott’s epic Omeros, and Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills.

Unit 3: Eastern Visions of Resilience will re-cast the enduring question as a means of finding out what happens to beliefs and practices when they are represented, re-imagined, and performed in ways that challenge the dominant beliefs of a culture. Students will read Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones and Tao Te Ching, a cross-cultural circuitry of texts that recount Egyptian, Zen and Chinese stages of awareness leading to fortitude and enlightenment. The possibility of the sustained study of resilience being invested with new significance is immense due in great part to the global spread of insights that work together to convey a strong message over a vast span of time. Moving persistently between local and transnational contexts, students will have many opportunities to discover the personal matrix of virtues and character that can be nourished by ongoing interaction with diverse cultures along global circuits of exchange.

The bi-weekly sessions, based primarily on the assigned readings, will involve teacher and student crafted questions as I mentioned previously. For the questions I pose, students will be given 15 minutes during our Tuesday sessions to write their responses. There will be three formal essays, the last involving research, and two exams: one midterm and a final. Both exams will be comprised of one critical essay and one close passage question taken from the texts.

Over the last decade, the revival of interest in resilience in the field of Positive Psychology, founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, has spawned widespread discussion. Some of the best insights have come from psychologist, Angela Lee Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania who defines grit as the quality that enables individuals to work hard and stick to their long-term passions and goals. Given many students’ general familiarity with grit as a modern concept, I have reached out to Dr. Duckworth, asking her graduate students to serve possibly as consultants during the grant period and give a campus lecture, perhaps as an Experience Event, which will be well advertised, free to the public and aimed at sharing the prevailing ethos of grit that enables individuals and communities to thrive. Since I want my students to experience at least one instance of Homer in performance, I will invite members of the Curio Theatre Company in Philadelphia to campus to present a dramatization and meet with students to discuss the “grit” of theatrical performance and translation as a bonus.

My hope is that this new course will provide a forum for students, scholars, activists, and community members interested in participating in the critical conversation about resilience. I envision the ongoing development of this course in light of my evolving, multidisciplinary research on the subject. Above all, I plan to teach the course very enthusiastically for at least the next few years.

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Resilience and Ancient Greece

Less than two weeks ago, I participated in the Council for Independent Colleges’ seminar on Ancient Greece held at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC. I spent six full days reading, analyzing, writing about, and discussing Herodotus’ Histories as a means of deepening my knowledge of Greek history and myth and determining the ways in which I might be able to incorporate in my courses ancient texts that lead directly into the fundamental question that will guide my new Synthesis course: what makes us resilient?

During the seminar, I read an article by Matthew Christ entitled “Herodotean Kings and Historical Inquiry.” In it, Christ explores some of Herodotus’ motives in his accounts of the deeds (and misdeeds) of various kings and concludes that Herodotus shares with the kings he writes about a thirst for knowledge (167). Christ’s observations of the various kings’ quest for understanding as a mirror of Herodotus’ quest for knowledge (171) incited my closer examination of Book 7 of The Histories, which is a special case within the text.
Book 7 deals with Greek’s then-recent events (one would call them today “contemporary history”). The Persian Wars were a milestone in ancient Greek history, an event that divided time between “before” and “after.” Herodotus’ descriptions of events in Book 7 were well-known to his contemporaries; indeed, many eye-witnesses were still around. The blurring of the lines between Herodotus’ stories and those his contemporaries knew piqued my interest in organizing my students’ readings based on varying manifestations of storytelling and the preservation of such stories and the lessons they afford those who hear them.

Herodotus, the putative “father of history,” makes it clear in Book 7 that one of history’s roles is to teach the reader not only what happened but also what is right and what is wrong. Since Herodotus’ time, historians, while changing methods and focus, have remained constant in the belief that history has something to teach us. One cannot help but wonder if this is indeed the case and, more importantly, whether there is a common lesson about resilience one can take away from history or whether there are different lessons depending on the audiences and the various times one is exposed to such accounts of past events.

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Post 5: Last Day

What do you do on the last day of class? By that I mean the very last meeting, not necessarily “the last day of classes” which is usually the penultimate meeting. For most courses, the last meeting consists of a final exam which – whether cumulative or not – hopefully tests knowledge of everything that has been covered and relies on skills that have been practiced all semester. Is this useful?

There is a long tradition of having a final exam to round out a course. A last judgment that, like the conclusion of a novel, has been logically building since the first day and gives everyone a proper resolution to their story arc. Some succeed, some fail, some fall in between, but everyone gets a clean ending. In reality, though, this is a bit of an illusion. Learning and using knowledge isn’t supposed to stop on the last day. And anyone would have to admit that the professor benefits from this clean ending a lot more than the students, who have to actually go out – for the rest of their lives – and use the skills they’ve acquired. They don’t benefit much from a number or letter in my grade sheet, they’re judged by their ability to function in life.

Still, exams do have tremendous value despite their bad reputation. Henry Roediger III has done a tremendous amount of research in this area and found that testing encourages deep cognitive processing (critical thinking, explicit thinking, etc). It also provides students with a accurate feedback about gaps in their knowledge and improves memory significantly more than studying or thinking about the material. In fact, I frequently tell students that the best way to study, and the main method supported by memory research, is to test themselves at home. Unfortunately, most people have the idea that studying involves “going over” the material (i.e., just looking at it) until they are thoroughly bored and tired. Overall, frequent testing is one of the most effective methods for building long-term memory of course material.

That doesn’t make it fun. (Though I do teach students how to cognitively reappraise this experience to make it more enjoyable and effective, but that is beyond the scope of this blog post).

What if you really do the most testing possible? I once was a teaching assistant for a Cognitive Psychology course. The professor was young but had just earned tenure, and so he was brave enough to try this technique: The course had 10 exams, plus a midterm and final, and each exam covered ALL the material for the whole semester. So, students basically took a cumulative final every week. Perhaps not surprisingly, they were not happy with this arrangement. Also not surprisingly, grades at the beginning were very low. Over the course of the semester, however, grades improved until, at the very end, the grade distribution was comparable to any normal course. Everyone learned, despite a huge portion of the course consisting only of testing, and according to all current memory research the technique should allow them to have better memory for that material for a longer time. I’ve never tried this myself, but it is hard to deny the benefits of testing even though most students are afraid of it.

In a recent senior seminar, I did give the class an exam that I told them would not count for a grade. It was on introductory material, not things covered specifically in the seminar, but we followed all the procedures for a normal exam. When they finished we went over the results and they all saw their grade, and knew I would see their grade, even though it didn’t count for anything at all. My observation was that they treated it much like a normal exam, including all of the stress and anxiety. I see a similar thing during our senior exit exam, which also does not count toward any grade but covers material for all four years of a normal psychology education. Students worry, get very serious during the administration of the test, and leave with much the same attitude they would have for a normal final (exhausted and not particularly happy).

Having thought about this for a while, I’ve come to two conclusions. First, exams are clearly important and very useful for helping students learn and build critical thinking skills. Second, because they aren’t generally liked, they don’t necessarily need to be the last thing students remember about the course. Memory research also shows that we are bias to remember the conclusion of a story (or a course) more than the middle, and thus when someone says “what did you learn in Dr. Couchman’s class?” it would be nice if they remembered something about the material or a mind-expanding activity rather than taking an exam. Memory research ALSO shows that very little of the course content will be remembered (though skills and thinking strategies can be maintained), and therefore it seems counterproductive to emphasize facts on the last day. Instead, there ought to be a way to emphasize skills and experience in a meaningful way that will also be memorable.

A recent article in the Chronicle talks about turning the final exam into a kind of epic experience that is more like a game than a serious sit-down test. Other professors have even ditched the final exam altogether in favor of a final “event” that emphasizes the real-life applications of course concepts rather than re-hashing learned facts.

As I’ve talked about previously, my course looks at metacognition – thinking about thinking – and will focus on research skills that students need in their careers. This seems like the perfect topic to use for a kind of non-final final. I don’t know if it will be an epic experience or event, but I’ve decided students will present their research projects to the class (exactly like you would do in a real career) while also incorporating activities that demonstrate whatever mental phenomena they investigated directly to the class. This could be the method of their experiment, or a simpler demonstration to give everyone the gist of the problem they explored. The other students will participate, something that is generally exciting and memorable, but will also learn. And in many ways, having to explain your work (and the theory behind it) and answer questions from fellow students and professors is the best kind of exam.

They will be tested on all the skills that they’ll need in the future, but they will remember a crazy day of participating in fun demonstrations. With any luck, they’ll develop deep critical thinking and interpersonal skills AND look back on their time in college as an exciting thing that gave them new ideas and helped them think outside the box.

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Race, Racism and Resilience

In his April 4, 1967 speech entitled, “Beyond Vietnam,” Marin Luther King declared, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” (The full speech can be accessed here: http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_beyond_vietnam/

Since I will not betray myself, the memory of my ancestors or the grace and resilience of black people, I cannot and will not be silent about my very deep sadness and outrage over the recent tragic shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police officers in what Maya Angelou called “these yet to be United States.”

Philando Castile’s mother, in a CNN interview earlier today, explained that she always told her son to comply with the police should he ever find himself pulled over, stopped or questioned by police officers. In response to her own memory of such exchanges with her son, she asked, “What’s the point in complying if you get killed anyway?” I find her question both disconcerting and telling.

The adversity that black people in America experience, and more specifically, the trauma that Diamond Reynolds, Philando Castile’s fiance, endured while witnessing the murder of her loved one as her four year old daughter sat in the car’s back seat while exposed to the brutal violence and obscene language of the offending police officers confirms the dreadful fact that most of the stress for many black people today comes not only from mental processes–from worrying about possible racist assaults, relationships, children, mortgages, finances, Donald Trump, and more–but also from actual physical violence and emotional danger.

That a four year old girl sat in the backseat and witnessed the brutal murder of her mother’s fiance, even declaring, “Mommy, I’m scared,” makes me wonder how one’s being strong in the face of calamity has cultural value and why resilience for black people, specifically, has its roots in dehumanization. Yes, it takes determination, inner strength and resolve to survive the experience of sitting inches from a loved one who suddenly and unexpectedly becomes the victim of racist, vicious police brutality, but to what end? At what cost? Why, for black people in 2016 America, is resilience still tied to overcoming the brutality of daily, racial microaggressions and overt racism?

About the Minnesota shooting of Philando Castile, @johnnyterris tweeted, “Lavish Reynolds calm demeanor (esp in front of daughter) is something I wouldn’t been able to do if it were me. That lady is PURE STRENGTH.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/07/07/the-incredible-calm-of-diamond-lavish-reynolds/

For purposes of my present research and pedagogical planning, I am interested in examining closely and assigning to students readings of various stories of (extra)ordinary black men, women and children (both during slavery and in the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement) who have had to contend with repeated trauma with the goal of helping students make several cogent observations regarding the raw material of resilience and its evolution when blackness meets racism.


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