In my experience, Colombia is among the most misunderstood Spanish-speaking countries. Until the wonderful recent Disney film Encanto, most of what we have heard about Colombia in the US has involved drug trafficking or guerilla warfare. It is rare that we learn about the myriad cultural products and practices as they relate to the unique perspectives of the people of this beautiful South American country. It is my goal to expose students to a different view of Colombia—one that I have experienced during my own dozens of visits to the country and in my marriage to a Colombian American for over 30 years.
The Benefits of Thematic Units
Thematic units, or curricula that revolve around a central theme, can be a hugely effective tool for designing engaging and effective lessons for our language programs. A thematic unit is often connected to an authentic text or video, answers a real-world question or problem, and can expose students to cultural products, practices, and perspectives in ways that are often compelling and thought-provoking. Thematic units present grammar, vocabulary, and language structures in a contextualized way.
Students may be practicing the preterit and imperfect tenses, for example, but this is never the focus or goal of a thematic unit. Rather, the can-do statements and performance indicators embedded in standards-based units underscore a proficiency goal—highlighting how students use the language and ways it connects to the five Cs (communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, and communities). And what’s more, thematic units can be fun and exciting for students—and for teachers!
Colombia-Based Thematic Units
Throughout my career, I have designed thematic units on many topics, mostly for middle school students (my favorite age range) and mainly about Colombia (my favorite place). In creating materials and curricula for adolescents about a place that can seem both foreign and yet familiar to students, I strive to portray the country in a nuanced way and in a way that feels as authentic as possible, especially to those who identify as Colombian. To this end, I always share my initial nascent ideas with my husband, his family, his friends, and any others who might have a connection to the culture. As a nonnative speaker of Spanish and a non-Colombian person, I find this triangulation imperative to ensure that the cultures I am portraying are not viewed through my own White, non-Latin lens. After receiving input, feedback, and yes, grammatical and lexical corrections, I feel better equipped to share these units with my students. In this article, I am happy to share them with you as well.
Los héroes de Colombia
This thematic unit about El Biblioburro, the “Donkey Library,” highlights the story of Maestro Luis Soriano, who was declared one of the CNN Heroes for his work in bringing books to children in rural areas of the coast of Colombia. In this unit, students read books and articles, watch videos, and brainstorm ways to support this mobile library. On a visit to Colombia, I was able to contact Maestro Soriano and to ask about ways in which our students might help support his work. Not surprisingly, the answer was “more books!”
Back at home in the US, our students held a fundraiser and purchased books, which they read and then dedicated to the children who would receive them. We sent them, and several months later, we were thrilled to receive photos of the books in the hands of students in Colombia. Materials and other resources for this unit can be accessed here: http://miscositas.com/biblioburro.html.
Los tesoros de Colombia
El Museo del Oro is one of the most spectacular museums in the world. This thematic unit involves students in virtual travels to the city of Bogotá, a side trip to Lake Guatavita and learning about the legend of El Dorado, and of course, a tour of the Gold Museum. Students take a ride on the TransMilenio bus and subway in the city, they visit a café and make choices about the snacks they want to taste prior to heading to the museum, and then they have the chance to explore artifacts in the museum and even one famous object that connects to the legend of El Dorado.
This unit was designed to expose students to new information, themes, and topics relating to the history and Indigenous peoples of Colombia, while also spiraling back to previously learned vocabulary and topics, including the weather, transportation, body parts, and food.
Materials and other resources for this unit can be accessed here: http://miscositas.com/museodeloro.html.
Las regiones de Colombia
In this thematic unit, students take a fantasy trip to different regions of Colombia, in which they sample food, music, and art. For us, it culminated in a real-world trip to Little Colombia in Queens, New York, to do the same. During the real-world trip, students interviewed recent immigrants from South America to learn more about their favorite foods, music, and art, while also learning about their interlocutors’ experiences immigrating to the US. They came to understand why there is a “Latin foods” aisle at the supermarket and considered what products they might want access to if they were to emigrate to another country. Materials and other resources for this unit and fantasy trips in general can be accessed here:
La flora y fauna de Colombia
With the popularity of the wonderful film Encanto, students have new insights into some of the cultural products and practices of the Zona Cafetera in Colombia. Through the eyes of the beloved characters Isabela and Antonio, whose gifts are connected to the country’s flora and fauna respectively, students learn about ways in which the natural resources of Colombia can be threatened by human contact.
In this unit, students take a road trip in a Jeep Willys (a typical mode of transport in the coffee-growing region) and view highway signs that depict animal crossings. They learn about an app that is meant to help document roadkill incidents as well as live animal sightings as a means of helping to locate and save vulnerable creatures.
La política de Colombia
One of my few intermediate/advanced thematic units revolves around a simulation in which students take on the role of US-based artists who are given the opportunity to exhibit their work in Spain. This unit was inspired by a real-world protest letter written by Colombian artists and authors who were questioning a recent change in European immigration regulations that would require visitors from “former colonies” to file for visas. The regulation changes infuriated Colombians and seemed like a compelling question for students to ponder—would struggling artists be willing to file for a visa if they were invited to exhibit their work in Spain, or would they side with the protesters and boycott the country? In order to make an informed decision, students contacted real-world artists throughout the Spanish-speaking world and asked them to weigh in. After research, students took on the roles of their artists in a classroom debate. A video and other resources depicting this unit can be accessed here: www.learner.org/series/teaching-foreign-languages-k-12-a-library-of-classroom-practices/spanish-politics-of-art.
Each thematic unit offers concrete examples of how to incorporate contemporary and historical issues into our teaching of Spanish, no matter the proficiency or developmental level of the students. With the inclusion of engaging authentic materials, hands-on experiences, and real-world tasks and projects, students acquire not just language skills but also more nuanced perspectives about one of the most beautiful places on earth, Colombia, tierra querida.
Dr. Lori Langer de Ramírez began her career as a teacher of Spanish, French, and ESL. She is currently the director of world and classical languages and global language initiatives at the Dalton School in New York City. She is the author of books on multicultural education, as well as several Spanish-language books and texts. Her website (www.miscositas.com) offers free materials for teaching Chinese, English, French, and Spanish. Lori has presented workshops, staff development trainings, and keynote addresses at local, regional, and national conferences and in schools throughout the US and around the world.
Her areas of research and curriculum development are multicultural and diversity education, culture-rich and content-based language teaching, and early/elementary language teaching and learning.