The Masquerade—By Alejandro Azocar

Masks have always fascinated me. As a child, I would put on a mask of “Scooby Doo” and chase my brother around the house, screaming and yelling at him. I would make my parents laugh by mimicking different voices with my mask on, by assuming a different persona. I believe that not only do masks hide our faces but also our souls. Masks symbolize the ambiguity of human nature because hiding our facial features veils who we really are but simultaneously masks allow recognizable characteristics to remain perceivable for others, such as our voices and our entire physical characteristics.

One day at Butterfly elementary school, a school where Spanish was being taught to children aged 5-8, and where I was working as a research assistant, I suggested Ashley, a novice Spanish teacher, to design a thematic unit about Latin American carnivals for her class. It was almost the end of February, and she was having a hard time designing her lesson plans for the upcoming weeks. She taught kindergarten and first grade, so I thought that it would be an excellent idea for her to create a few lessons by means of which children would learn what carnivals meant in Latin America and what their purpose really was. It was a great idea, I thought—an idea that incorporated culture and authenticity and would provide a tiny window for children to learn something new about Latin American peoples. At the same time, children could have a small party, learn some language, and enjoy the spirit of a carnival.

The following dialogue ensued:

“Carnivals!” Ashley said. “That sounds fascinating. I’ve heard about the carnival in Rio de Janeiro but I haven’t heard much about carnivals in other parts of South America.”

“They are very common festivities all over Latin America. They exist in many countries and cities. Carnivals are celebrated differently depending on the country, with their own set of unique characteristics,” I said.

“Hmm. Let me think. I can get supplies such as garlands, pinatas, and other prompts so we can decorate our classroom. Children could be in charge of that, and I am sure they would love it!” Ashley added.

“But what would the teachable aspect of the lesson be? You don’t want only a party. You want your students to learn something meaningful from this carnival theme,” I said.

“Well, I can teach them vocabulary and how to say Salud! (Cheers), though it’d be awkward to teach children expressions that involve alcohol and partying, don’t you think?” Ashley said.

I was puzzled by Ashley’s enthusiasm about the theme of carnivals for her lesson planning. On the one hand, I appreciated her willingness to take risks on a curricular aspect of Latin American culture that was clearly unknown to her. On the other hand, I saw this thematic unit as an opportunity for her to learn more about Latin American festivities that are specifically symbolic and have religious meaning for local people. In fact, the main purpose of celebrating carnivals is to mark the beginning of Lent (Cuaresma), which is the 40-day period that precedes Easter. Carnivals are celebratory because people want to separate the mundane and ordinary from the profound religious period that Easter represents for the Catholic Church. Carnivals are the days when people should have fun and, simultaneously, a carnival is the time for people to prepare themselves for 40 days of religious reflection on their Catholic humanity. This is the essence of Carnivals. This is the cultural and historic root. Therefore, there is a definite contrast between the celebratory and the festive, and the calmness and the reflexivity that comes afterward.

My concern regarding Ashley’s thematic unit was the following: could this cultural message, which I acknowledge to be a complex one, and yet important, be transmitted to kindergarteners and first graders? I believed it was. Could this message of celebration and reflexivity be the center of the thematic unit? I thought so. Could this be truly the focal point of the learning (the contrast between celebration and self- reflexivity on who we are, or the good deeds that we have or have not done). Yes. I certainly believed so. I wanted this to be the focal point of Ashley’s Spanish lesson. I was afraid, however, that Ashley would decide to prioritize the “fun” over the “message.”

One week passed by, a short time period when I did not see Ashley in the school. I felt ill so I was away for a few days. Ashley also felt ill so there was a substitute teacher in her classroom. On the following Monday, I stepped into Ashley’s first grade classroom, and I found children working with white paper plates.

“Hola!” some children eagerly shouted. “Look what we are doing. We are making masks with paper plates!!”

“That is great,” I said. “So I see that you are getting ready to celebrate carnival.”

“Yes!” I heard as children chorally shouted.

“The kids are having a blast!” Ashley said. “They are supposed to create their own masks with paper plates. They can paint their masks whichever way they want to. The more color, the better. It is a simple task. They must cut two holes in order to be able to see through. Then, they are to paint the masks and attach a straw on one side, and hold it on their face. I also told them that they could use a rubber band so that the mask could be held on their faces, but I am not sure about that. It could be a challenge, especially when the moment comes for us to dance! We will be ready for the carnival tomorrow. Will you be here on Thursday?”

“How are you going to organize the activity, Ashley?” I asked her.

“Well, I thought about it extensively. The main focus will be to dance on Latin songs with a mask on so that we can recreate a carnival. I am going to teach them vocabulary related to parties in Latin America, especially food items, for example, ‘arroz con pollo,’ ‘tostones,’ ‘arepas,’ and ‘menudo.’ Then, I am going to teach them how to ask for certain food, for example, ‘Me puede dar arroz con pollo por favor?? (Could I have chicken and rice please?). I will also teach them to say ‘Feliz Carnaval!’ The idea is that, with some Latin music playing in the background, each child will have to come to me and ask for some food. I will pretend to be a ‘food stand lady.’ They are to ask me, ‘Me puede dar arroz conpollo?’ and I will give them a paper plate with fake food. Then, as they receive the food in their hands, they would tell me ‘Feliz Carnaval.’ Then we will do a pinata. By the way, children will have to hold their masks on their faces at all times. That’s part of the game. I think it will be so much fun!!!” Ashley said.

“Yes, it sounds like a great idea, Ashley,” I said. “I am sure the children will have a lot of fun during the carnival.”

Needless to say, I was disappointed with what I heard from Ashley. Her lesson plan, although fun and creative, did not incorporate the essence of the carnival that I was hoping children would hear.

“This plan sounds very creative and innovative, Ashley. Where did you get the inspiration for all these ideas?” I asked her, faking my true feelings.

“From a workshop on FLES that I attended last November. Every year, there is a workshop on campus organized by a group of early childhood educators whose mission is to promote the teaching of foreign languages among children,” Ashley responded.

“I see,” I said.

The point of writing fictionalized stories in early childhood education is to convey a powerful message. This message can be situational in time and space, social-justice-related, or even a message of complaint about situations that make the researcher feel uncomfortable. This story encapsulates all the three ideas but more importantly, the message that is conveyed to the reader is a message of protest that springs from the humanity of the researcher. I argue that by means of fictionalizing objectively collected data, the researcher in early childhood education is able to defy canons of empiricism and scientifically based evidence, particularly in early childhood educational research. At the same time, the researcher is able to find a soothing means to express his or her discontent.

In an attempt to further my exploration of the reasons for Ashley to design the carnival lesson superficially and to ignore my suggestions about the need of being culturally sensitive, I decided to fictionalize her rationale. In doing so, I created a second story in which I incorporated my observations of a workshop that I attended on methodology for teaching foreign languages to children. This school of thought is called FLES (Foreign Languages for Elementary Schools), which is a national movement in the United States led by prominent scholars who promote its mission among foreign language teachers. While the FLES mission is laudable, there are weaknesses in its foundational principles, one of which is the minimal discussion about the human aspect of the Other Spanish speaker (or other “Others” in other foreign languages). Inspired by a traditional view of teaching children about complex subject matter in a sheltered fashion, FLES resorts to the use of superficiality and fantasy in the teaching of foreign languages. Games, songs, and oral activities are at the center of the curriculum. At the same time, FLES promotes communication as the primary goal so that children should be able to speak in Spanish or languages other than English as early as possible because this is beneficial for their intellectual development. Total immersion in Spanish is promoted as the fundamental way to achieve quick and effective language acquisition.

The story continues as Ashley reflects upon her professional growth as a teacher in her diary (conveniently stored on her laptop computer). To add a layer of complexity to the narration, I have inserted my comments on Ashley’s ideas, as though I had been “spying” on her dairy. The narration of this story is simple, and yet reflective of what I feel about Spanish-FLES, which is the philosophy that I hold responsible for Ashley’s lack of pedagogical openness in the design of her lesson plans on carnivals.

“An Eye Opener” by Ashley Smith

Ashley Smith’s Diary. Dear E-Diary,

The title of this entry reads “An Eye Opener” because today I really learned something very important about the teaching of Spanish as a foreign language to American children. I am very passionate about Spanish, but I am currently having a very hard time transmitting this passion to my students. They are “non-traditional” Spanish students: children aged 5-8. Certainly they are not the typical students who learn Spanish in schools. Many times I have wondered how I can possibly motivate them to learn Spanish and make my classes fun, entertaining, and more importantly, communicative and productive. Today, I learned valuable principles from real experts that are rarely seen around—experts in how to teach languages to children. Rather than narrating my experience, I am going to copy and paste the notes that I took on my laptop computer during the workshop. These notes reflect what I observed in this workshop. I am sure that in the near future, I will read these notes again and remember how important this day was in my professional development as a Spanish teacher.

Meeting with the FLES group (Foreign Languages for Elementary Schools) at the Bell Conference Center on Campus

8.45-9.30 am: Breakfast with a big group of early language educators, the majority of whom are white middle-class women in their 40s. They certainly seem to know what they do! Roughly speaking, there are approximately 80-100 people in this room; the majority of whom are women. I feel so excited! I read on the projection screen, written in big font size: “This is the 21st century learner and this is what she/he needs.”

Alejandro’s Comments. The demographics of the attendees speak greatly about who organizes and controls this network of language educators.

Ashley Smith’s Diary. 9.30-10.00 am: After eating breakfast and engaging in small talk with other people, an announcement is made and a formal talk begins. The title of the talk is “Pedagogical Practices in FLES Language Teaching: Content, Process and Product.”

The presenters are two very well-dressed women in their early 40s. They describe in detail a variety of methodologies that should be promoted in FLES these days, for example, the use of the internet, blogs, Google images, etc. The rationale for using these new methodologies is that “they listen to the children’s interests because children have computers at home, so they are familiar with all this stuff” (literal expression; I couldn’t agree more!).

Alejandro’s Comments. According to Ashley, these presenters are talking about new methods: new ideas to be implemented in the classroom, technological methods, fun activities, tons of activities, games, and play. However, all these methods don’t lead us to a fundamental reflection of the following questions: Are we really doing things the right way in FLES? Have these presenters ever questioned their philosophy? These methods are presumably “good for the kids” and that’s it. That is the absolute truth. It seems to cycle and stay there, unchanged.

Also, how about the contextual realities of the classrooms where FLES is taught? According to what Ashley describes, the assumption seems to be that teachers don’t have any problem with their practice as language teachers. They always have resources and a great deal of material, so the question that comes naturally to their minds is, why not use technology?

I really think that the presenters’ recommendations are fully contextualized in a particular social stratum in the United States (white, middle-class suburban). This social environment influences, I think, how the presenters that Ashley heard see their own pedagogical practices in FLES.

Ashley’s narration makes me think about how some American foreign language teachers in this country (not just in elementary education) understand their own practices and the language they teach. The foreign language is usually an entity that is “out there.” It is learned, and then it is taught. They understand the language from the outside, in a detached fashion; this outside perspective is the starting point to come up with methodologies of teaching.

Ashley Smith’s Diary. 10.00-10.45: FLES presentation on an ideal FLES program as it is actually happening right now (the main event of this meeting).

The presenters are two elementary school teachers who teach in Georgia in a school that serves a large suburban population of white middle-class children. “We have a couple of Latino kids in our classes, and that’s great,” I heard. “I consider myself more Latina than American. My husband is Colombian,” the other one says. I asked them about the location of the school and the population that is served. They replied: “Our school is located about three blocks away from the Governor’s mansion, so it’s a really nice neighborhood.” I couldn’t agree more! It must be a great setting to teach at!

They highly recommend that the audience purchase the “FLES Bible”: “Languages and Children: Making the Match,” by Helena Curtain and Ann Dahlberg. I should buy it!

They proceed to speak about the main purpose of FLES, which is to create an environment for communication where children can speak. “Everything must be oral and audible.” According to them, these are the principles that should be used in FLES teaching (projected on a power point slide):

  • 1. Use GAMES: “Play, play, play.” “Nothing is more exciting for the kids.” “We need to teach languages in a non-threatening environment, doing what children like most: play!” They say. Of course this is true!!!
  • 2. Use songs and chants. Use Jose Luis Orozco and Patty Lozano (singers who have recorded CDs with music in Spanish aimed at children).
  • 3. Use books, but not any book: Only those that are authentic books in order to incorporate “culturally authentic literature” in the FLES class.
  • 4. Another important principle: “You cannot teach language without teaching culture. You must teach children culture.”

Alejandro’s Comment. What is the teachers’ vision of culture?

Ashley Smith’s Diary.

5. Use TPR (Total Physical Response), i.e., lots of body movements directed by the teacher. “We use TPR, so it’s all about talking with your hands and bodies, so children will always understand what we mean” (assuming a total immersion method).

More principles of FLES projected on the power point slide:

  • 1. Motivation: Use the element of surprise. “Kids get all excited with the unexpected”
  • 2. Retention: Active involvement. They say: “Get them active, otherwise they get distracted.”
  • 3. Transfer of learning: The activation of prior knowledge stored in their brains. Kids should be “language acquirers, not language learners.”
  • 4. Total Immersion Method: Stay 95% in Spanish. They say: “It’s hard to stay in this 95%, but not impossible.”

Foreign Language Fundamentals (more power point slides).

  • 1. Integrated instruction: “Math and Spanish, Sciences and Spanish, History and Spanish”
  • 2. Culture: “You cannot teach the culture without the language.”
  • 3. Literature: “Authentic” texts, hopefully representing children from Latin America.
  • 4. Technology: Use power point!
  • 5 C’s: Principles at the heart of language teaching—ACTFL principles (Standards)
  • 1. Culture
  • 2. Community: Bring Latino resources, e.g., Buy “Pan deMuertos” (Dead’s Bread) from the local Mexican bakery, and Mexican candy. Mexican coke is also very good and children LOVE it!
  • 3. Comparisons: English should be compared with Spanish, so as we speak Spanish, children are comparing sounds and words with English.
  • 4. Communication: Children should talk to each other.
  • 5. Connections: Connections with other subject matter areas, or “teaching across the curriculum.” Making connections to prior knowledge.

Alejandro’s Comment. Important: What do we connect to??

Ashley Smith’s Diary. Support general classroom teacher when you teach the foreign language.

Alejandro’s Comment. Doesn’t this perpetuate a secondary role??

Ashley Smith’s Diary. Concrete Example of integration of Spanish into other subject matters.

1. Science Unit: “La Mariposa Monarca” (The Monarch Butterfly) Science curriculum

The presenters say: “This is a thematic unit across the curriculum that we have used successfully with kindergarteners and first graders.”

Alejandro’s comment. This is to use Spanish as a vehicle or as a tool for the teaching of something else. Here, connections means to connect to other curriculum areas, so in the end Spanish gets diluted in the science lesson if there are lots of pictures, videos, resources, and attempts to attract the attention of the children. With this, unfortunately, we lose the essence of Spanish.

Ashley Smith’s Diary.

2. Cultural unit: Dia de losMuertos (The Day of the Dead).

The presenters say: “This is a cultural unit for kindergarteners, but could be used in any class, even in high school.” A picture is shown on the power point slide that depicts several pumpkins and plastic skeletons used in Halloween. They say that they are not allowed to use images of Jesus and the Virgin of Guadalupe in the school, so they came up with this very nice idea!!

Alejandro’s Comment. Skeletons and pumpkins?? I cannot believe what Ashley is describing. An “altar” is adorned with pumpkins!!! Ashley Smith’s Diary. On “El Dia de los Muertos” (The Day of the Dead, on November 1st), kids should have a big fiesta with:

  • - chocolate caliente (hot chocolate)
  • - calaveras (skulls)
  • - esqueletos (skeletons)
  • - ofrendas (offerings)
  • - papelpicado (tissue paper with cut-out designs)
  • - pan de muertos (Bread of the dead)

Alejandro’s comment. If all this description is considered a “good lesson on culture,” I cannot disagree more with both Ashley and the presenters in the workshop. The problem here is not only the distortion of a traditional Mexican celebration such as The Day of the Dead but also the horrible objectification of culture; the end result is the teaching of exoticism. The authentic cultural message, that is, honoring those who have passed away, becomes absolutely lost.

Ashley Smith’s Diary. Certainly enlightening! I feel so fortunate to have attended this workshop. There are so many good ideas!


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