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Volume 25, No. 1 Fall 2001

Humanities Connections in the Teaching of Spanish to Native Speakers

by Thomas M. Adams, National Endowment for the Humanities

One of the privileges of working at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is being able to look over the shoulders of scholars and teachers who are renewing the teaching of the humanities and its subject matter. The movement to articulate a methodology for teaching Spanish to native speakers (SNS), for example, responds to the growing presence of students of Hispanic heritage in classrooms all over the United States. The "big three" Hispanic communities that trace their recent or remote ancestry to Cuba, Mexico, and Puerto Rico have spread throughout the country, while new waves of immigration from Central America have added to the linguistic and cultural diversity of the Spanish-speaking community.

From my observations of a number of outstanding NEH-funded projects over the last decade, I am convinced that Spanish teachers can perform a key role as interdisciplinary "brokers" in curriculum design. The simplest way to make this point is to illustrate, from SNS projects funded by NEH, how the objectives, materials, and methods of teaching Spanish to native speakers can fulfill the "five Cs" of the National Foreign Language Standards: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities. In particular, I focus on the Connections standard, which affords unique opportunities for SNS teachers to shine and for students in their classes to learn (American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, 2000; Met, 1999).


NEH support for SNS projects has been provided primarily by its Division of Education through three types of grants: (1) major national projects, (2) local "humanities focus grants" limited to $25,000 each, and (3) national summer seminars and institutes for school teachers. NEH has also provided support for the preservation of Spanish language through its Preservation and Access programs and has supported

related projects in its Research and Fellowships programs. Projects reaching beyond the academic community have been supported through NEH's Public programs. I focus here on the seminars and institutes program, which I have observed most directly, while referring also to major national projects that provide resources for SNS teachers.

Preparing Teachers for SNS Classes

Spanish language teachers have made tremendous strides in identifying the needs of the more-or-less bilingual student who has some exposure to Spanish as a language of everyday Communication. Through its national projects, NEH has attempted to support this work. An early effort was a path-breaking conference, "Teaching Spanish to Native Speakers in the U.S.: Praxis and Theory," at the University of California, Davis, in 1994 (Colombi & Alarcon, 1997). Cecilia Pino's regional institute, "Teaching Spanish to Southwest Hispanic Students," in 1993 at Mexico State University, Las Cruces, was a forerunner of this conference. The Community dimension of the national standards was the most immediately obvious in these efforts, since students' language use was related to the language of historically defined communities. Teachers have become conscious of the importance of drawing upon community resources to engage students in the study of the cultures associated with their language and community.

The Culture rubric of the standards leads to "cultures" in the plural: One of he lessons of SNS has been that even within the community of Spanish speakers, culture is diverse and evolving. This appreciation leads into the rubric of Comparisons, whether among the various communities of Spanish speakers or among the various ethnic and national communities that students encounter. It also leads to Connections, often through teachers' collaborations with colleagues in other areas of the school curriculum.

Connections and the Converging Cultures of the Hispanic Southwest

The connections between SNS and the five Cs of the foreign language standards came home to me most vividly on a visit to a summer institute on the Hispanic Cultures of the Southwest, offered in 1997 by Columbia Teachers' College. The host site was the campus of Saint John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in sight of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Northern New Mexico, in an area that is home to small towns and farms where Spanish has been heard for over 400 years. The emphasis on Connections was deliberate in this institute. Project director Mari Haas recruited elementary and high school teachers in teams that included one Spanish teacher and at least one colleague teaching another subject matter. These others were primarily social studies teachers, but there were also teachers of English, art, and even Latin. The program of the institute was also interdisciplinary, in that participants learned about the culture and history of the Southwest from specialists grounded in a variety of disciplineshistory, literature, folkloreas well as learning about traditional crafts from today's artisans.

Culture was woven throughout the institute's interdisciplinary topics. Stories and folktales reflected the values and way of life of traditional communities, explaining, for example, the function of the traditional healers or curanderas. Visits to sites such as the restored colonial hacienda, El Rancho de las Golondrinas, told volumes about the culture. A writer and teller of stories and a scholar who studies writings by Hispanic women of the Southwest were among the scholars, writers, and artists who spoke with the participants.

The theme of Communities emerged as participants discussed the place of native Spanish speakers in their own schools and communities. A teacher from the local community described the separation that prevailed until very recently between school culture and traditional Hispanic culture in the community. The theme of Comparisons was developed through pedagogical sessions in which a sequence of knowledge, skills, and supporting materials was developed around a day in the life of a child in a traditional Southwestern Hispanic community. As the familiar details of everyday life unfolded, opportunities for comparison with the lives of children elsewhere in the United States arose.

The encounter between Hispanic and indigenous cultures was the organizing theme of an institute held in 2000 at Arizona State University, on the edge of the Sonoran Desert, home to the Tohono O'odham people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. This institute focused on the theme of cultural convergence in the former Spanish empire, with special attention to the legacy of cultural contacts of all kinds in the immediate area of southern Arizona. The institute also demonstrated a convergence of interest, expertise, and teaching goals among teachers of Spanish and their colleagues in social studies and other subject areas. The theme of the institute generated myriad opportunities for teachers of Spanish to make connections with the study of history, literature, art, anthropology, architecture, and the use of land and the environment.

During my visit to this institute, the group visited the spectacular mission church of San Xavier del Bac outside Tucson, following a thorough introduction by art historian Emily Umberger. Local museums and sites, including the Heard and the Pueblo Grande Museum on the site of an ancient Hohokam irrigated settlement, yielded abundant resources for studying the pre-existing layers of culture that were encountered by early Spanish soldiers, missionaries, and settlers. Anthropologist Elizabeth Brandt was a key contributor to discus sions of these sites along with other host and visiting faculty. She and the project director also ensured the authenticity of a meal served during the last week of the institute that was representative of Hispanic and indigenous cultures in the 16th century. Cultures of the region under Mexican rule, then after these areas came under the control of the United States, constituted another important strand of the institute. Even those teachers who were from the region left the institute better prepared to see the legacy of Hispanic and other cultures as part of a very long history.

SNS and Connections with a Living Heritage

Also in 2000, the Center for Applied Linguistics sponsored an institute at UCLA that focused on the varieties of Spanish spoken in the United States today. Linguistic variationstheir patterns, their origins, and how to deal with them in the language classroomreceived sustained attention in a context that embraced culture, comparisons, community, and a web of interdisciplinary connections.

One of the strengths of the UCLA institute was that it offered multiple perspectives on Hispanic American cultures, starting with the Chicano/a culture so strongly represented in the immediate Los Angeles area and moving to a study of Central American, Cuban, and Puerto Rican immigrant cultures. When I arrived, Concepción Valadez of the UCLA School of Education had guided participants in preparing a series of classroom-related presentations on novels, poetry, and film that related not only to Mexican Americans, but to other Hispanic American communities as well. The room was full of booksnovels and collections of poetry with titles like Touching the Fire (Gonzalez, 1998) and Mother Tongue (Martinez, 1996), and collections of essays and articles, including one on urban Latino culture (Davis, 2000). One of the presentations focused on the film "American Me," and delved into memories of the World War II Zoot Suit Riots (Pagán, 2000). Presentations by Ana Roca on Cuban Americans, Puerto Ricans, and other Latino groups generated lively discussions that brought to the fore the distinctive viewpoints of these groups. Connections and Comparisons: Mexico and Puerto Rico

Without describing in detail every seminar and institute, I cannot fail to mention the variety of NEH-funded projects on particular dimensions of Hispanic and Latino cultures, particularly in Mexico and in Mexican American communities in the United States. Visiting faculty at institutes held at the University of Oregon campus have included Mexican poet Emilio Pacheco and Mexican American author of children's books Francisco X. Alarcón. Numerous grants in all divisions of the NEH have focused on Mexican American history and culture, and a number of our National Humanities Council members have contributed to this body of research. SNS teachers will find that many of the materials produced for historians would also serve their needs. (See, e.g., Rochin & Valdés, 1990).

Caribbean writers and scholars have also given voice to a sense of an evolving identity, bilingual and open to a multiplicity of experience: Esmeralda Santiago powerfully evoked these themes in a plenary session at the annual meeting of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in November 2000. The complexities of cultural identity came to life at an NEH institute held in Puerto Rico under the auspices of the University of Connecticut. Through readings, lectures, and field trips, participants studied the transformations of Hispanic Caribbean culture, weaving together four strands: history, land and environment, cultural diversity and continuity, and arts and literature. They also gained insight into the evolving cultural relationships among Puerto Rico's Caribbean neighbors and a fresh perspective on transplanted Nuyoricans.

Resources for SNS Teachers

By collaborating with their colleagues in history and other subjects, Spanish teachers can incorporate a vast amount of subject matter related to the Hispanic American experience into their teaching. One exemplary resource is the NEH-supported Web de Anza site (, which is based on a diary kept in Spanish in the 1770s by the commander of expeditions from Mexico to the current site of San Francisco. The entire text of the diary has been translated and annotated, but Spanish teachers can also use the original Spanish version, an authentic historical document, to make a natural connection between the teaching of Spanish and social studies.

NEH is also supporting a project by the National Foreign Language Center (NFLC) at the University of Maryland to develop a set of Web-based modules for SNS teachers. Developed with advice from experts, the modules will provide information on meeting the special linguistic needs and capitalizing on the assets of native Spanish speakers. They will also help teachers find and use materials for making connections with a variety of disciplines in the humanities and beyond. This project, which is a component of the NFLC's LANG-NET project (, and NEH's EDSITEment gateway to the humanities ( offer Web- based instructional materials and recommended teaching strategies.

NEH encourages you to bring us your ideas about teaching Spanish for native speakers. One of our programs may be able to help you reach your goals. Visit the NEH Web site ( You can check out the summer seminars and institutes and contact the project director for details. We want you to think of NEH as your "Humanities Connection."


While the encouragement to apply to NEH reflects official Endowment policy, the particular views expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the NEH.


American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese. (2000). Spanish for native speakers. Professional development series handbook for teachers K-16: Vol. 1. New York: Harcourt College.

Colombi, M. C., & Alarcón, F. X. (Eds.). (1997). La enseñanza del español a hispanohablantes: Praxis y teoría. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Davis, M. (with a foreword by Roman de la Campa). (2000). Magical urbanism: Latinos reinvent the U.S. big city. New York: Verso.

Gonzales, R. (Ed.). (1998). Touching the fire: Fifteen poets of today's Latino renaissance. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday.

Martinez, D. (1996). Mother tongue. New York: One World/Ballantine.

Met, M. (1999). Making connections. In J. K. Phillips & R. M. Terry (Eds.), Foreign language standards: Linking research, theories, and practices. Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook.

Pagán, E. O. (2000). Los Angeles geopolitics and the Zoot Suit Riot, 1943. Social Science History, 24(1), 223-256.

Rochin, R., & Valdés, D. N. (Eds.). (1990). Voices of a new Chicana/o history. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.

For more information and resources on teaching Spanish to native speakers, visit CAL's SNS Web site.


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