Having organized, hosted and led over a dozen student foreign exchange experiences in my career, makes me think about how to bring that excitement, adventure and connection to the culture of what I’m teaching in the classroom. Nothing can match the impact on the 15 years olds as they ride away from the airport with their new host families, one at a time, with saucer eyes. Instantly plunked into the life of a same-aged-peer in a foreign country, exchange students have that sweet-spot... that 360 degree view of the language and culture.
Clearly not every day can my students be heading off to a host family in Latin America, but they can be taken on a journey toward cultural competency right from the classroom. Investing the time to read a novel as a whole-class can rival the exchange student experience and open up incredible avenues of cultural insight. Moving slowly and taking advantage of every tidbit of the story, being sure that 100% comprehension is being met, brings those tactile, sensory experiences of the main characters to the students’ emotional core, allowing them to identify with the characters through common
experiences and background information.
For me, guiding my class through a leveled reader transports us to a unique location and gives me the spark I need to make it real. Expanding on the sights, sounds and smells embedded in the story’s location, and immersing students in an engaging story, allows us to fully take part in the adventure without leaving the classroom.
Like a trip to an exciting new destination, a good tour guide will keep the group together, losing no one and leaving no child behind on the road to language acquisition. The guide will point out things that students might miss, and encourage conversation about the experience of the story. The closer and closer students identify with the characters, they begin to see life through the
cultural lens of the people in the story; understanding their choices, attitudes and reactions.
Being certain that all students understand and deeply understand every step of the journey, allows the cultural viewpoint of people and places to surround the classroom... and for cultural nuance to organically become part of language acquisition.
Engaged in the adventure, connected to the characters and immersed in the sensory imagery of the story location is the sweet-spot where language acquisition explodes.
- Virginia Hildebrandt