Language Learners as Changemakers

Below is the seventh in a series of posts by participants in the Winter 2021 Open Pedagogy Fellowship, coordinated by the Mina Rees Library. Fellows will share insight into the process of converting a syllabus to openly-licensed and/or zero-cost resources, as well as their experiences in the Fellowship.

Daniel Valtueña (he/him/his) is a PhD Candidate in the Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures Department at the CUNY Graduate Center and a Mellon Humanities Public Fellow at the PublicsLab. Daniel teaches romance languages and cultures at Baruch College and works as a Programs Assistant at the Queens Council on the Arts. His research focuses on contemporary performing arts in the Spanish-speaking worlds. He is an independent curator based in New York and Madrid.

Learning a language is something most people find useful. As a language instructor, I have always tried to make my students see the benefits of language acquisition focusing on professional development, travelling abroad, or cultural exchange outcomes. However, what if languages could also be a tool for social change? Thanks to the Open Pedagogy Fellowship offered by the Mina Rees Library at the CUNY Graduate Center, I was able to redesign an Advanced Oral Communication Spanish course into a Spanish for the Public Good seminar. This allowed students to instrumentalize their knowledge of the Spanish and English languages to positively impact their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic in NYC.

Basic and intermediate language courses are usually taught with expensive textbooks, and which undergraduate students struggle to afford. When it comes to advanced courses, instructors usually draw on online cultural resources which expand what textbooks can offer, in order to have class discussions about a variety of topics while writing and oral skills are being refined. As a Spanish instructor teaching in NYC, I have always felt pretty disidentified with the cultural materials presented in textbooks about Spanish-speaking communities in the US and abroad. Aren’t most of my advanced students Latinx individuals whose life experiences already speak about these issues? Isn’t NYC a place where the Spanish language exists in all five boroughs? Why does the curriculum sometimes ignore what students bring to the class and where classes are taught? During my time at the OER fellowship I tried to answer these questions and offer my own solution.

Free textbooks and online materials can be great open educational resources. But what if we think about the term “open” in a different manner? What if who we are, what we do, and where we live can center our teaching? Tired of relying on textbooks and YouTube videos, this semester I decided to teach a course with the goal of centering my students’ experiences, and exploring what the city can offerin a sense, both were positioned as open educational resources which visibilize the challenges we’re facing today. And how would it sound to address these challenges while, and as a component part, of learning Spanish? These are the challenges I faced when I started to design the Spanish for the Public Good class I am teaching this Spring at Baruch College.

Spanish for the Public Good is an advanced oral communication course, which aims to instrumentalize the advanced Spanish and English knowledge of the students registered to make a difference for the communities they belong to. This is a project-based course which draws on the Design Thinking methodology. While advanced grammar components are reviewed in class using relevant materials about the current times, students then apply this knowledge into a public research project which aims to meaningfully impact a Spanish-speaking community in NYC. Their projects can take many forms: a translation for an undocumented individual in need of legal support, a panel on Latina businesswomen to emphasize their role in the sector, or creating a dictionary with useful expressions in Spanish and Arabic for these speaking communities to better understand each other in Astoria. Projects like these are often inspired by the Spanish for the Public Good Series that I organized for the course, in which Spanish-speaking changemakers or community leaders in NYC come to the class to present on their projects and positions. This series of encounters help students reflect on their assignments while they improve their Spanish oral skills. So far, representatives from the Spanish-speaking theater Repertorio Español and Manhattan’s LGBTQ Center (also known as The Center) have visited our class, helping to make visible what Spanish can do.

With this course I aim to make my students’ experience valuable by centering their own experiencesissues that directly impact their livesinstead of what they usually see as meaningless materials, such as commercial textbooks intended for a generic, non-Hispanic audience. By doing so, my students are encouraged to engage with social issues, helping them see that the languages they speak are already tremendous tools to positively impact the world we live in.

To learn more about my Spanish for the Public Good class click here.

I want to thank Mina Rees’s librarians and all GC students who were part of the Winter 2021 Open Pedagogy Fellowship cohort for their ongoing support and feedback.

“Unisphere” by nerastudio is available for all uses under a Pixabay license.

About the Author

Katherine Pradt is the Adjunct Reference and Digital Outreach Librarian at the Graduate Center.