Lori Langer de Ramirez uses the world language classroom to broaden students’ knowledge of geography and introduce concepts like social justice
Language study can open a student’s eyes to social issues around the world. In rural Colombia, teacher and child advocate Luis Soriano brings books to students who have little access to them.
Traveling to schools throughout La Magdalena with his donkey library, or El Biblioburro, Soriano exposes young students to literacy and a love of reading. Learning about this grassroots project, students of Spanish can explore geography, socioeconomic inequities, and history while participating in class projects to improve the lives of others.
Social Justice and teaching
Kids love to help. In my 25+ years of teaching Spanish, I have always found students to be fascinated by by real-world problems and compelled to come up with solutions that work. As educators, it is our job to curate valuable experiences for our students and provide opportunities for them to design, plan and execute solutions that are effective and needed. Children and young adults can do so much to make change in our world, and it is up to us to expose them to authentic issues in ways that compel them to take action. For this reason and others, I am convinced that teaching world languages through a social justice and problem-based lens can be both engaging and efficacious. It taps into the energies of our young people and their desire to make a positive impact on the world in which we all live.
The Story of the Biblioburro
Several years ago I learned about the work of Luis Soriano, a schoolteacher from La Gloria in the state of Magdalena in Colombia. Soriano was concerned about the lack of access to books and other school materials for many children in his region of the country. Believing that books and reading are the keys to developing a child’s creativity and essential for developing educated, thoughtful, successful adults, Soriano decided to do something about the problem. He enlisted the help of two donkeys, which he named Alfa and Beto, designed custom saddles to carry loads of books, and set out to bring these books to rural children. He soon became known as the Biblioburro and has since visited countless schools and children with his donkey library.
After years of working in obscurity, the international media has discovered Soriano and his work, and he has since been nominated for the CNN Heroes award, covered in a PBC POV documentary, and written about in the New York Times. There are two wonderful picturebooks written for children about the Biblioburro: Jeanette Winters’ Biblioburro: A True Story from Colombia (also available in a Spanish language version) and Waiting for the Biblioburro by Monica Brown. There are also a growing number of curricular materials – in English and in Spanish – that have been developed around this compelling story. With such a wealth of information, videos, storybooks, articles and photos, I began to think about ways to bring this story to my middle school Spanish students.
As the spouse of a Colombian and all around Colombia-phile, I am always on the lookout for ways to expose students to positive images and themes relating to this amazing country in South America. Too often Colombia is associated with negative topics, such as drugs or guerilla warfare. While these themes are indeed part of the country’s complicated history, they tend to obscure all of the positive elements of the country’s culture and history (like the fact that Colombia was, once again, named the “happiest country in the world” on the WIN/Gallup International Survey!) The media, always hungry for narratives that have shock value, tend not to tell the stories about the vibrant traditions, the vast natural resources of the country, or the country’s many popular icons and heroes. To counteract negative images such as those from shows like “Narcos” or films like “La Colombiana,” I endeavor to find ways to share the beauty of Colombia with my students.
On a family trip to Colombia one summer, my husband and I decided to try to connect with Profesor Soriano to explore the possibilities of designing a project for my seventh graders. We made a call to the Fundación Biblioburro to get a sense for the needs of the children and to discuss ways in which we might be able to offer support. Soriano and his now-growing group of volunteers had established a student work center and library in La Gloria and were in need of computers, office furniture, and of course, books. We shipped a laptop to the foundation and began to plan ways in which our students could collect funds to purchase books – in this way, our social justice project was born.
The Biblioburro Project
Back in New York, I designed a thematic unit for my students that would allow them to discover the work of El Biblioburro through watching videos, viewing photos, exploring maps, and reading short descriptions of Soriano’s work (see resources for a link to the thematic unit). In the middle school, students learned about the coastal region of Colombia where El Biblioburro operates and watched videos. Students designed their own poster, radio announcement, or video to educate the school community about this important work. In both the lower and middle school, we read the book by Jeanette Winter (El Biblioburro – Un cuento real de Colombia). Students were instantly fascinated by the idea of una biblioteca ambulante/a mobile library, and began to ask questions about ways in which they might help out. One activity involved small groups in brainstorming ways in which they could support the work and, given that bake sales are a ubiquitous part of our school culture, they decided that they could raise money to then buy and ship books to the Fundación.
In our three classes of seventh graders we raised a little over to $600. With the funds, colleagues and I visited a small mom-and-pop Spanish-language bookstore called Librería Barco de Papel in Jackson Heights, Queens. We purchased one book for each student in our classes and brought them back to our school. Each student chose a book and took it home to read. Not only was this exciting for students, but it was excellent interpretive reading practice for them. They were then asked to write a letter to a child in Colombia, which was their presentational writing work. We worked on these letters over the course of a week or so, with students peer editing the letters and making subsequent revisions. In the letter they included a greeting, an explanation about why they chose the book that they were sending, and a summary of their favorite part of the book. These letters were ultimately pasted into each book, the books were packed up, and finally shipped off to Colombia. When the books finally arrived at their destination, Profesor Soriano sent us several lovely photos with students holding up the books we had sent. Our students, needless to say, were excited and expressed feelings of accomplishment at the end of the project.
This project was neither innovative nor groundbreaking. It simply involved a heady mix of several important components for the development of an effective social justice-based curriculum: access to good sources of information in a variety of media, a compelling story with real-world issues and challenges, personal connections to the topic that made for even greater passion of participation, and students who are excited to make a difference.
Whatever the topic and whatever the need, designing learning opportunities for our students that involve them in solving problems is both a great way to foster proficiency growth in their language as well as strengthen critical thinking skills. Students will use their language not just to communicate, but also to make positive change in their world – helping to underscore the importance of being a multilingual citizen in our ever increasingly global world.
Resources: Social Justice and El Biblioburro for the Spanish Language Classroom (articles, links to videos, thematic units and other teaching materials): http://miscositas.com/biblioburro.html
Article: Ramirez, Tanisha Love, and Moreno, Carolina, “This Country Was Just Names The Happiest In The World, Again,” The Huffington Post, January 5, 2016. Accessed online at:
Source for Spanish-language books: Librería Barco de Papel, Jackson Heights, Queens, NY: http://libreriabarcodepapelny.com/
Blog: Biblioburro sin fronteras – this blog is maintained by the Fundación Biblioburro and has a wealth of photos and information about Profesor Soriano’s work: http://biblioburrosinfronteras.blogspot.com.co/
Dr. Lori Langer de Ramirez is director, World and Classical Language Department and Global Language Initiatives, at The Dalton School, New York City.