Some conversations are hard to have even in English. These students are having them in Spanish.
The New Generation
On the first day of Camila Villanueva’s La nueva generación class—an advanced Upper School seminar, taught entirely in Spanish—students are instructed to bring their “most-prized possession” along with them. For Camila, that means an impression of a beloved dog’s paw print. She asks students to split into pairs, explain why their chosen objects are significant to them, and then “ask a question that helps you understand your partner’s essence.” This sense of trust, as well as a willingness to be vulnerable, serves as the foundation for the entire class.
“I want students to develop a real sense of self-awareness,” Camila says. “I want them to know why they think the things they think—why they process things the way they do.”
The class discusses issues of identity and social politics in a way that expands students’ worldviews, while also refining their Spanish speaking and comprehension skills. “The basic concept is to center it around identity in general, but focus on individual groups through an American lens,” says student Payton McCarty-Simas ’17. “We want to understand the impact that our history as a country has on different groups of people. The class incorporates a lot of third-wave intersectional feminism as a way of intersecting different politics. So we talk about the news a lot, but also general philosophical questions.”
Classes are made up of conversations, student-led presentations, and sometimes debates, often on topics that are considered “hot button” in the current political climate, such as “pros and cons of being politically correct,” “the Muslim ban,” “intent vs. impact,” and “police brutality.” The environment of trust and respect that Camila cultivates allows students to discuss these topics without fear; what is said in class is kept private, within what she calls the familia of the classroom. “If we find out that someone shared something personal about another student, the class ends and we just do grammar for the rest of the year,” she says. But that hasn’t ever happened.
Having these conversations in Spanish, says Daniel Blatt ’17, has dramatically improved his language ability. “Going into it, I was better at writing in Spanish than talking,” he adds. “I think a lot of times, discussing these kinds of issues, you get passionate about them. It really forces you to learn the language, because you want to be able to express yourself.”
Payton agrees. “I think what I’ve learned personally is that the best way to learn is not to think of it as a language class,” she says. “If you’re learning in a traditional language class, you’re learning in a dry way, learning vocab that you’ll never use in a sentence. Having these conversations is a better way to learn—and also an easier way to learn.”
The class has also helped students figure out where they stand on the issues of the day, which has given them valuable insight in the months before college. “Especially this year, it felt incredibly important to have these conversations,” explains Melissa Ilhan ’17. “It’s a really open space; you feel really safe here, to talk about whatever you’re feeling. A lot of senior elective classes are focused on social awareness and finding your voice before college, but I think this is the perfect class to take right before leaving, because it helps you find your perspective.”
Camila, for her part, is highly impressed with her class. “It’s difficult enough to have these conversations in English,” she says, “and these students are pushing themselves to talk about these things in their second language.”