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Cultural Participation Aids Spanish Language Growth
Oakdale High School freshmen Matthew Gery, left, and Katie Schultz show the piatas that they made for one of their Spanish class cultural projects. Gerys piata is Wheatley from the video game Portal 2 and Schultz is a Russian nesting doll. - photo by Dawn M. Henley/The Leader

Learning a new language can be a challenge and Oakdale High School Spanish teacher Joe Gilbert believes that it takes more than just book learning to master it.

Gilbert’s Spanish class students are taking part in Cultural Participation and Research (CPR) projects. They involve two separate high-point assignments, due at separate times where the students have to complete a combination of several interactive Latino cultural activities on a list, each given different point values, bringing the overall total to 150 points.

They do the projects, including a research-based project, and keep a folder that documents their participation.

“To me, students can’t become fluent until they take part in the culture of the language they’re trying to learn,” Gilbert said.

He believes that cultural learning helps students to understand Spanish speakers better because it helps to know a little about the person who speaks the language. He also said that it helps them to form a bond or converse with a Spanish speaker because of a shared experience.

“One of the biggest barriers to learning Spanish is that people either aren’t that interested or don’t understand about Spanish-speaking cultures,” Gilbert said.

He added that in California, most people relate Spanish-speaking with Mexico, but said that there are actually about 21 different Spanish-speaking countries and while the cultures may have some similarities, they each have their own distinctive attributes.

There are approximately 60 different activities to choose from in the CPR, including performance activities such as dancing or music, art activities such as visiting a Spanish-origin art exhibition or making a piñata, ordering something new off a restaurant menu in Spanish or cooking Latino food for their family, visiting a California mission or a Spanish-speaking country, shopping at or attending a Spanish-speaking cultural event, or writing a paper or reading a poem, article, or novel in Spanish.

OHS Spanish I student Matthew Gery said that making the piñata was fun but he also visited the historical California Mission San Jose and did a PowerPoint presentation and wrote a paper about it.

“Visiting the mission, after thinking about it and researching it for the paper, I got an idea for the Spanish missionaries’ culture,” he said. “…the Spanish people were more religious than we are now.”

He also said that he learned life was rougher back then than how it’s portrayed today.

Katie Schultz, also a Spanish I student, made salsa at home and also attended a swap meet/flea market as part of her cultural event experience.

“We submersed ourselves within the Spanish culture,” Schultz said. “I gained a better understanding of the language.”
She added, however, that it’s still a work in progress. The next round of CPR assignments are due in May.

Gilbert said that some of his students have traveled out of the valley to try new restaurants as it relates to the CPR project. He noted that Salvadorian food is very different than Mexican food, and that Puerto Rican and Spanish dishes are different still. He said it helps change the students’ concept about the language because of the differences in the cultures.

Many of Gilbert’s students have also gone into local restaurants and have ordered in Spanish, or have gone into other businesses for part of their CPR project. He said that the local community seems to have received the project well and has responded graciously and been supportive. He added that parents have also responded positively because their children have cooked them meals as part of the CPR project and have made comments to him about it. Gilbert said that when he was a sophomore in high school he had a teacher who did a similar project and that teacher spurred Gilbert’s interest in the Spanish language. He hopes to have the same effect on his students.

“I liked being able to participate in the culture,” he said. “…Being a non-native speaker, this is important to me to take part in the culture.”

He reported that his experience has been that most students respond really well to the project and added that most of the project choices are pretty fun or engaging.

“Those who get into it, get a lot out of it,” he said of his students. “They have fun with it.”