Diversity Through the Big Screen

Chita Espino-Bravo explains how to use film to introduce diversity into advanced conversation classes

person making film in desert with diversity in title

Teaching an advanced Spanish conversation course at the university level can be challenging for many reasons, but for me, the biggest challenge was trying to find a textbook with clearly organized topics for conversation. I found plenty of wonderful textbooks that were appropriate for low-advanced or high-intermediate Spanish conversation, but nothing just right for advanced students, so I decided to create my own material for this course, using Hispanic films that cover controversial topics to engage students in conversations and to make them think about diversity.

Any advanced-level conversation course dealing with diversity in any language can be created using different films covering the specific topics the educator would like to use in class.

The goals for this advanced Spanish conversation course were:

  • Learn and use new idiomatic expressions in Spanish;
  • Acquire more confidence to communicate in Spanish;
  • Learn and use new vocabulary in Spanish about the business world, medical Spanish, and translation/interpretation;
  • Acquire precision when using specific vocabulary;
  • Acquire, use, and practice specialized vocabulary related to the studied topics;
  • Dominate complex grammatical structures in Spanish;
  • Debate about different controversial and current topics of the Hispanic world and learn about diversity;
  • Augment listening comprehension and improve Spanish pronunciation;
  • Research current affairs in Spanish.

The course is divided into five parts: film, quiz, test, debate, and presentation. Obviously, the first stage is to watch the film, after which students take a short quiz on the main characters and the plot. The conversation class is divided into groups of three to work on debates with a specific topic assigned by the teacher. The groups then present the ideas and some questions for the class to debate. After the debates, students work on longer group presentations that deal with a topic each group chooses that relates to the film. All the debate and presentation topics have to be approved by the teacher to make sure topics are appealing enough for the class, deal with the different topics the film presented, and are linked to the core topic of diversity.

To add a practical aspect to this course and make it more interesting for the students, I include some vocabulary from the professional world, so all the selected films have sub-topics related to the medical, business, and translation/interpretation worlds. Each group has to find three or four words used in the films that describe these professional worlds and use them in their debates. In this way, each student is able to discuss issues and vocabulary related to the specific professions in Spanish.

Students have to research different topics for the debates and presentations and bring current data and statistics on the topics they choose. It is important that they learn how to research for current information, and I often ask them for information sources to make sure the pages have current information about the topics for our class. I also ask them to cite their bibliography or internet websites at the end of each debate or presentation. Group debates need to last ten minutes per student, and long presentations are 15 minutes per student. Students are asked not to read directly from their PowerPoint presentations. They have to present their ideas without reading, engaging the audience and making it as interesting as possible for all of us. In this way, students learn how to communicate information using their own words and not looking at a piece of paper but at the audience—the students in the classroom. Talking about controversial topics and diversity is a way of keeping the audience interested in the presentations. All topics relate to the Hispanic films shown in class, including prostitution in the Hispanic world and how different societies deal with this problem; transsexuality, homosexuality, and society’s acceptance of marginalized and diverse people; drugs and drug addiction and how Hispanic societies deal with this problem; whether legal and undocumented immigrants in the U.S. should learn English and why; and how societies deal with legal and illegal immigration.

Most of the topics are studied from different viewpoints—from the viewpoint of the U.S., which is the cultural context students know best, and from the viewpoints of different Hispanic countries.

Viewpoints vary from country to country, and one of the things students learn is to respect different opinions and the diversity that comes with them. For example, a drug addict may be a criminal in the U.S. but be considered to have a medical condition in another country. Laws are different in each country, and students are able to learn about those differences through their presentations.

The films I used for this course had marginalized and diverse characters who had tough lives, so I could expose my students to real-life problems and diverse people. This led to their debates and presentations dealing with those marginalized people and their problems. Students brought up controversial topics in their presentations—topics they would normally not use in any class presentation unless they were studying sociology or social work, nor would they think about these problems and possible solutions in their normal cultural contexts. Students also learned about diversity and different ways of living and thinking from their presentations.

The films I used for this advanced Spanish conversation class were: María llena eres de gracia (Maria Full of Grace) (2004), directed by Joshua Marston; Todo sobre mi madre (All about My Mother) (1999), directed by Pedro Almodóvar; ESL: English as a Second Language (2005), directed by Youssef Delara; César Chávez (2014), directed by Diego Luna; and La misma luna (Under the Same Moon) (2007), directed by Patricia Riggen. What all these movies have in common is the presentation of the life and problems of common, diverse, and marginalized people. Students may not be able to relate to the characters in All about My Mother, by Pedro Almodóvar, since I consider Almodóvar to use the most marginalized characters and issues of modern societies in his movies, like homosexuality, transsexuality, prostitution, and drug addiction. Students are still able to experience a story that deals with human beings and their problems, and the movie makes them connect to the humanity and problems of those marginalized characters. Students end up feeling empathy for, and even liking, the marginalized characters by the end of the movie. This helps them to embrace diversity and empathize with somebody who is so different from themselves.

“The films I used for this course had marginalized and diverse characters who had tough lives, so I could expose my students to real life problems and diverse people.”

I often find it hard to enable students to talk about controversial topics without judging. We are all aware of our own judgments and prejudices about specific issues or different people, but one of the things we all learn is not to judge but to respect different people, their lifestyles, and their problems. Sometimes, talking about controversial issues and our own prejudices makes us open our eyes to a situation that we would never have allowed to enter our own world. I find it extremely important to talk about controversial issues and topics that are not part of our comfort zones. Only when we leave our comfort zones are we able to experience something new and therefore able to look from another point of view.

Learning to respect somebody we do not agree with in the classroom, or somebody who would never be part of our lives, like some of the marginalized characters in the films, makes us more human and less prejudiced. It makes us more respectful of diversity and what diversity really means. This advanced Spanish conversation class has also taught me about many new issues. Using controversial topics in the classroom with respect and with objectivity allows us to look at them with less judgment and look for possible solutions. It is often hard to talk about these subjects, but in my experience, the more we talk about them in the university classroom, or in high school, the easier it becomes to be less judgmental. Students learn how to normalize marginalized characters and their problems, so they can search for possible solutions. When I ask them “What would you do if you were in his/her shoes?”, they understand that they have a privileged context and try to understand the situation of a character who is less fortunate than they are. Empathizing with the less fortunate, or with people who are very different from them, enables them to embrace diversity and be more understanding of it.

Students enjoyed the first time I taught this course on campus and expressed in the course evaluation that they felt they had learned a great deal about the discussed controversial topics, some specific vocabulary from the professions, and what diversity means. They reported that they had learned how to talk more comfortably about controversial topics in Spanish at the advanced level, and I must admit that I learned a great deal too from their unique and well-researched debates and presentations.

Chita Espino-Bravo, PhD, is associate professor of Spanish at Fort Hays State University, Kansas, U.S.

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