College Preparatory School for Girls Grades 3-12

LW3 CLASSROOM SPOTLIGHT: World Languages, Honing Intercultural Skills Throughout a Lifelong Journey

At Holton, we see language learning as a personal journey and a lifelong learning endeavor. As our students navigate from grades 3 through 12, we seek to provide them with the essential tools that will guide them toward interculturality. While they explore the diverse cultural roadmaps that languages offer, we invite them to lean into discomfort, develop an authentic understanding of self and others, and grow to become agents of positive change locally, nationally, and globally. 

As language teachers, we seek to nurture dialogue and culturally sensitive interaction with people of diverse languages, perspectives, and practices. Our main goal is for our students to communicate effectively in the target language, with respect and empathy, accounting for the thoughts, opinions, and norms of others. We want our students to think critically, investigate, and reflect through comparisons of cultures studied and their own as we empower them to share their voices. 

Every step and stage in language acquisition matters. Beginning with the exploratory years in third and fourth grade with French and Spanish and culminating with the upper-level classes in four languages in 12th grade, our program highlights the connection of a language to identity and a sense of belonging. Our intercultural language teaching allows us to foster cultural competence in students while they learn by using the language and not merely by learning about it. As students work toward becoming effective communicators, we understand the strong emotional connection they have with their mother tongue and use it to their advantage. 

As part of our efforts toward becoming an anti-racist institution and to live out Holton’s Diversity Mission Statement, as well as the World Language Department’s mission, goals, and competencies, our language teachers from around the world have been using different lenses to examine issues of identity, biases, the impact of stereotyping, the invisibility of minoritized groups, equity, intersectionality, as well as social justice. Here, we explore some of the ways that this work has been advancing students’ knowledge and understanding of these social issues this year in Chinese, French, Latin, and Spanish as we thrive to Learn Well, Live Well, Lead Well

In Lower School Chinese classes, fifth- and sixth-grade students explored social identities and inclusivity. They used cartoon avatars to represent selected aspects of themselves and created their own virtual spaces using Pic Collage and Bitmoji. In Middle School, seventh-grade students deepened their understanding of themselves and others as they researched the diverse backgrounds and perspectives of famous Asian Americans such as Maya Lin, Grace Lin, Michelle Kwan, Yo-Yo Ma, and Eugene H. Trinh. In eighth grade, they engaged in discussions about racial stereotypes against Asians as they read the graphic novel American Born Chinese (美生中国人) by Gene Luen Yang and reflected on the relevance of this story. Since students are reading this book in English class, they gained a deeper understanding of multiple perspectives and made cross-disciplinary connections. 

In Lower School French, fifth and sixth-grade students learned about the diverse history of the French-speaking countries around the world using a multitude of lenses, instead of an ethnocentric one.  Students had multiple opportunities to reflect on their language journey using their ePortfolios. In Middle School, seventh-grade students discussed the diversity of the Francophone world with the song “Ensemble,” which pays tribute to French-speaking countries and celebrates their differences. As classes further explored Francophone communities, they got a window into the life of Juliana, an 11-year-old student from Ivory Coast, who was the first member of her family to attend school. In eighth grade, students delved a bit deeper into the complex cultural, linguistic, and historic relationships between France and its former colonies in West Africa. Through the personal stories of two girls from Senegal and the Ivory Coast, girls explored the role of certain fabrics and types of clothing in the daily life of most West African countries.

In Spanish, Lower School students explored Spanish-speaking cultures to gain insight into the nature of the Spanish language and the concept of culture, reinforcing that there are multiple ways of viewing the world. They enriched their language journey through our reading program, which starts in fifth grade. Through the stimulation of interpretation in reading, students explored differences and similarities between peoples of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and races. Through this experience, teachers aimed to foster the capacity for culturally sensitive interaction by celebrating differences. In Middle School, eighth-grade students researched the lives of famous Latino Americans and Afro-Latinos in the U.S. and learned about their contributions to American culture. 

As students progress in their language acquisition and enter our upper-level classes, there is a heightened sense of purpose, as well as readiness for self-reflection. 

In the Chinese 4 and 4 Honors unit on college education, juniors expanded out from the focus on choosing college majors, diving into an inquiry about equity and equality in college admissions. They started by conducting research to glean information and facts related to the issue, then shared their findings in class. During the sharing, language features learned in the past were reviewed, and new ones were introduced, such as the terms for equality, fairness, people of color, prejudice, and racial discrimination. The process continued into an active discussion. During the discussion, students looked into areas where inequity, socio-economic status, and institutionalized discrimination converge to have a negative impact on Black students and students of color. The inquiry turned out to be a meaningful and engaging undertaking and culminated in an oral presentation of the key issues of inequality in college admission. 

Later during the third trimester, students will take on issues of stereotyping, prejudice, xenophobia, and racism against the Chinese immigrants, through their examination of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, documentaries, disparaging images, and propaganda in the media against the Chinese immigrants. They will read poems written by the Chinese immigrants detained on the Angel Island in San Francisco Bay in the early 20th century, accompanied by journaling and writing. To keep the inquiry current, the class will also relate to the anti-Chinese and anti-Asian incidents during the pandemic. The process will end with an oral presentation of an anti-racism poster, where students explain the rationale behind and messages of their designs, and a personalized speech from the voice of a Chinese immigrant. 

In French, ninth-grade students delved into researching the life of a French-speaking girl their age as they answered the following guiding question: “What would my life be like if I were a Francophone teenage girl?” This project offered students the opportunity to look into the impact of colonization and the process of acculturation. 

The island of Martinique was the focus of 11th-grade French. Students explored the island’s history, geography, and evolving relationship with Metropolitan France. Martinique is part of the Lesser Antilles and became a French overseas department in 1946. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, France profited from its sugar plantations on Martinique, which were powered by enslaved Africans. The advent of Indian and Chinese indentured labor in the 19th century contributed to the rich ethnic diversity that we see on the island today, where over 90% of the population is of African or mixed descent. Students learned the term “creolization,” which describes the process of acculturation in which Amerindian, European, and African traditions and customs have blended over a prolonged period to create new cultures in the New World. At the end of the trimester, students reflected on their learning. Penny Gallagher ’22 said, “I enjoyed embracing and trying to understand a different culture from my own and bringing a lot of the knowledge into outside class discussions. I even brought up some of our discussions about Martinique into our Stamped [book] discussions [that we had in Advisory].” 

French 5 is a cinema class, using films as the only media to develop all four language skills. It develops critical thinking, cultural analysis, and aims at broadening perspectives on social issues. This year, the unit on migration worked with three very different films, each uniquely approaching a topic that, if not on the daily news, is part of our students’ daily lives: their teachers, parents, grandparents, neighbors, doctors, coaches, classmates, every one of them, every one of us is an immigrant. Welcome: A Kurdish adolescent crossing to the U.K. to meet his girlfriend, dies trying, while helped by a French swim instructor who rediscovers a purpose in life; Atlantique: a Senegalese bride losing her love at sea, haunted by his memory and call for justice, and reinventing herself in the suburbs of Dakar; La cour de Babel: a class of teenagers from 30 different countries learning French in Paris, where life took them, portrays their daily struggle with language and cultural differences in a touching documentary. All these stories help us remember why people are forced to leave their homes, how harmful the criminalization of migrants is worldwide, and how human connections and empathy are the driving forces that unite us all. Through Harkness discussions, personal letters written to the characters, and Flipgrid oral responses, our mission to take action in support of human rights globally resonates on the walls of our French class.

In Latin, students from grades 8 to 12 gained a broader and more inclusive perspective on the scope of Latin literature via a unit on women Latinists. Except for perhaps one female writer (Sulpicia), the curriculum at most schools is heavily—or entirely—focused on male authors from the Augustan age. Most students could graduate with a degree in Latin without encountering a single woman Latinist, yet there are many whose works, and lives, are worthy of close examination. The women Latinists unit was designed to forge a new path and to encourage students to travel beyond the boundaries of the traditional Latin canon. Working in pairs, students conducted research and read excerpts from 12 women Latinists whose cultures, education, and backgrounds ranged widely, with writings dating from 40 BCE to 2020. Included in this list of writers were Perpetua, a Christian martyr from Carthage; Beatriz Galindo, a Spanish educator known as “La Latina” who tutored royals and wrote Latin poetry; and Phyllis Wheatley, who was brought to America as a slave and became the first African American poet to be published. In addition to looking into biographical information about each writer, students were asked to examine underlying biases or injustices that shaped each writer’s work and life; consider how different cultural contexts can influence perspectives of women Latinists; recognize the biases and injustices that have kept women Latinists from being included in the canon of Latin literature and treated as worthy of widespread study; seek out a more accurate, inclusive picture of the world of Latinists; and let this cultural understanding inform their work and takeaways as Latin scholars.

In Spanish, Upper School students explored diverse communities in Spanish-speaking countries, both past and present. Along the way, they analyzed various cultural perspectives, recurring social issues, power struggles, and social injustice at the institutional and systemic levels. For example in Spanish 5, seniors focused on further exploring the historic and present invisibility of minoritized groups and the existing prejudice and stereotypes, racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-racism activism in the Americas. Students delved into a research process seeking a better understanding of why racism is deeply ingrained in various socio-political systems around the Americas. They researched the historical context of colonization by the Portuguese and the Spanish and they learned about the creation of the Spanish caste system and its dreadful lingering impact on Latin American societies. Students explored the slave trade to the New World, the social construction of race, the process of “mestizaje,” the shaping of the identity of Indigenous and Black communities, and their struggles. At the end of the trimester, students presented their group findings and a comparative analysis with the U.S. As students reflected on their learning, Ashley Ballenger ’21 said, “The project was very meaningful to me. I always find it meaningful when I become more educated on certain struggles another minority group faces. As a part of a minority group, I find that very important because to make changes, all minority groups should understand others’ struggles to truly be able to find justice and a better society.” Ava Bubbosh ’21 wrote, “The main takeaway from my research involves the caste system and how it persisted even after slavery ended. Whites would do anything to stay at the top of the power structure and isolated mixed and Afro-Colombians in cities. A similar thing happened in the United States after slavery was abolished.” Natalie DeSarbo ’21 reflected, “This project made the world feel a lot bigger than it had before. Understanding social issues on a global level enlightened me to the fact that many other nations are facing the same challenges the U.S. is. I was shocked by the similarities in the history of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic behavior in the U.S. and Argentina. What further steps can the world take to combat racism and anti-Semitism globally?”

As we carry on with our journey, our diverse team of professionals, who teach with passion and determination, will continue to create a safe space in our classrooms for students to dialogue about issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and social justice. We commit to empowering students to voice their opinions, in more than one language, and become agents of positive change in a globalized world.