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The Elsa Cortina Project

These materials were prepared by Dr. Marcie Pyper and Dr. Cynthia Slagter (Calvin College) and funded by a grant from the Kuyers Institute.

Although teaching and learning verbs and vocabulary has sometimes been considered “value-free,” the beliefs and morality that underlie a teaching approach strongly inform what is taught and how it is taught in world language classrooms. The world language classroom can be a place in which students learn more than discrete vocabulary and sentence structure. It can be a locus of discovery of common humanity and a place where human dignity is recognized and respected. By studying the life of a real person, students gain an understanding of that person as part of a larger community and a larger historical context.

Biographical narrative holds together what is often separated in language classrooms’ basic language functions and the experience of spiritual and moral challenges integrated into a life context. Students learn empathy as they share this person’s trials and triumphs and grapple with moral and spiritual issues while listening to and using the target language.

The subject for our biographic narrative is Dr. Elsa Cortina, an emerita professor of Spanish at Calvin College who came to the US as a Cuban refugee after the Cuban revolution. The project began with a series of videorecorded interviews with Dr. Cortina in which she narrated the story of her life. These units include video clips taken from the interviews, materials for pre- and post-viewing activities, and resources for guided reflection activities. Through a variety of exercises students will be encouraged to adopt a countercultural critical stance toward the prevailing culture from a faith-based perspective. As we anticipate continued work developing curricular materials based on this narrative, it is our hope that these materials will spark discussion, foment ideas, and provide important feedback that will result in offering our students a deeper and more meaningful experience in their world language learning.