“I don’t think I would even really understand what was going on if we weren’t talking about it in class.”
– Eighth Grade Student, Humanities 8C
The last couple of weeks in Barcelona have been challenging. We have seen the Catalonian people organize and hold a vote on independence. We witnessed the Spanish police react with violence to the very people it is charged to protect, and we experienced the people of Catalonia respond with a workers’ strike. Now, we face the uncertainty of whether or not our region will declare independence from Spain.
As a foreign teacher at an American school, I have constantly been wondering:
What is my role in all of this? How do I teach about this?
Current events have always been a large part of my teaching, but in a new classroom, in a new country, most of my knowledge about history and social relations, which made me relevant and interesting in the U.S., has been thrown out the window. Since I’ve been here, I’ve had a lot of catching up to do.
Following-up with my commitments to learn about and discuss current events, here’s how I am approaching teaching about the conflict:
- I am doing my homework: As I wrote in “You’re doing it now” and “How do we move forward?,” since Charlottesville and the terrorist attacks in Barcelona, I’ve been committed to reading the news, both about the U.S. and abroad. Accessing U.S. news has been relatively easy. Thanks to the Internet, I am able to use all my favorite news sources from before. Accessing Spanish news has been more difficult, however, because I do not know Spanish well enough yet to read or listen to the local news. After scouring the web and asking friends for recommendations, I’ve settled on listening to BBC World Service radio every morning, regularly accessing BBC articles, and reading El Pais in English. It’s frustrating to me to be getting news about the area I am living in from outside or translated sources, but it’s better than nothing.
- I checked-in with my students: As tensions rose about whether or not the vote would occur, I asked my students if they wanted to study and discuss current events relating to the Catalonian Independence movement in class. Through a written vote, a large majority of students said yes. However, a sizable minority said no. On their ballot, students were asked to provide an explanation for their opinion. Some students did not want to discuss the news because they felt it did not concern them (remember, about 35% of my students are Spanish, 20% are American, and 45% are International Students). Others were worried it would get too tense. However, several of the no votes also expressed that although they would prefer not to discuss it, they would be okay with the decision to discuss events in class.
- I checked-in with my administration: Taking into account my students’ opinions, I decided to move ahead. In planning discussions about current events, I always want to ensure I comply with school guidelines while teaching. I’ve found policies for class discussions around controversial issues vary across schools and districts. When I checked in, our school director, Mark Pingitore, provided guidance that staff are encouraged to discuss current events in age appropriate ways. He offered that productive lessons may include teachers helping students learn the main facts of events and provide tools to understand multiple perspectives. Additionally, Mark instructed that teachers are not to share or advocate for our personal position on issues.
- We set class guidelines. Based on a Positive Discipline training I attended two weeks ago, I set aside time for our class to truly dig into expectations we wanted to hold for ourselves while discussing Catalonian Independence. We first set a purpose for discussing current events in class. Then, we brainstormed all the expectations we thought we should have. I wrote down every student idea that was shared, exactly as they shared it, not editing their words for clarity or concision. Next, after the brainstorm, we evaluated each of the expectations, comparing them with the purpose of our discussion. You can see our process below:
- We used current event texts to learn specific, transferable reading, writing, and researching skills.
Before the vote, we read news articles from multiple sources, using nonfiction reading strategies to gain information from headlines and preview texts before reading. During reading, we made charts of facts we knew and questions we had. We discussed the limitation of studying events occurring in Spain through news sources written in English. We split up into research coalitions, with some students researching events through Spanish-language news sources, other through Catalan-language news sources, and yet others from English sources or sources from their native country. We discussed source bias, and the importance of evaluating news sources to understand what we read.
After the vote, we dug into the personal, writing narratives of how the events of the weekend impacted us personally. We had an author’s chair, and students shared their experiences and opinions. We studied the structure of police forces in Spain, learning about the different levels of the force (The Guardia Civil, Nacional de Policia, Policia Local), and we tried to make sense of what it means when the police attack the very people they are charged with protecting. Then, we moved into a larger analysis, looking at global and local factors that affect and influence the Catalonian Independence Movement.
- We connected our learning to our current Humanities unit. And through all of this, our current curriculum continues. We are in the midst of an Immigration Book Group unit, another topic that is both relevant and timely. To make all of this fit, we usually spend the first part of class studying current events and the second part of class studying immigration. Lately, a typical class will start with reading a mentor text. We spend about 10 minutes of class studying a news article, watching a video, or listening to a clip from news broadcasts or a podcasts about Catalonian Independence. Then, I model a reading, writing, or researching skill to help us analyze and understand the content presented. Next, students apply the skill I demonstrated to their research and reading on immigration, so they can more deeply understand their book book. Finally, students bring what they learn and are noticing both about Catalonian Independence and immigration to their book group discussions.
Yes, we are little behind in our curriculum, but it is so, so worth it. A conversation I had on Friday morning, solidified this for me:
We were on a middle school overnight trip in the Pyrenees. On the final morning of the trip, I stayed back at the lodge with students who were not feeling well. After resting, the students and I strolled the grounds. We picnicked in the grass, and took in views of the mountains while discussing current events.
One of the students is in my Humanities class. She told a story of WhatsApp group message that included many students from the eighth grade class, and discussed how people were sharing ideas and debating what they thought through messages. She said she was thinking about the event from different sides, and realizing that she can have her own opinion on the issue.
At the end of this, she looked at me and said, “I don’t think I would even really understand what was going on if we weren’t talking about it in class.”
To watch this student strengthen her voice, realize she can think for herself and form an opinion that is both unique and informed, might be the coolest thing I’ve seen in Barcelona yet.
So, while uncertainty looms ahead, and we’re not sure what country we’ll be living in next week, for now, our classroom is a solace. It’s a place for us to explore, to process, and to study events as they unfold. Come what may this week, we’ll have each other to help one another figure it out.