Playing with Fire

Using justification to debate hot topics in the Hispanic world

Have you ever asked yourself while looking at your Facebook feed, “Wait, is this for real?” I’m embarrassed to admit that I believed the cast of Friends was planning a reunion. (Seriously, Facebook friend who shall remain nameless, you played with my emotions.) After further investigation, I eventually realized it was another fake news story. As an educated adult, if I am falling victim to fake news, imagine how confused my teenage students must be sorting through all of this information.

In a world where all the answers to our questions are at our fingertips, generated by the mini-computers housed in our back pockets, it is now more important than ever to teach critical thinking skills. Our students have so much information flying at them, they need to know what is worth their energy and what they can just write off. Yes, memorization has a place in education, especially in my Spanish classroom. But the ability to evaluate, problem-solve, and justify an argument is becoming exponentially important.

To breach this topic, I’ll turn to the work of another one of my colleagues in the GMWP, Ashley Collegnon, who researched the subject of justification. Ashley claims that teaching students to justify helps them think deeply, find errors in their logic, and develop critical thinking skills. Isn’t that every teacher’s goal?

Ashley talks about teaching her students to write mathematical justifications. Great for the math teachers, but how can this apply the linguaphiles? After pondering for awhile, I arrived at the conclusion that justification and evaluation are relevant, even essential, in my classroom. For example, my students could justify their use of certain grammar concepts. Why did you choose to use the preterite tense here? What evidence is there to support your use of the imperfect subjunctive? Yes, yes, I know. Grammar shouldn’t be the focus of my class. And it’s not. But I’m of the philosophy that it does have a place in the classroom, so why not look at it analytically?

Okay, so maybe you don’t buy-in to the importance of grammar in the language classroom; that’s fine. You can still use justification. Recently, I gave my students an article (in Spanish) about how undocumented immigrants aren’t covered under the Affordable Care Act. After a simple introduction to healthcare reform (again, in Spanish), students were to use one of the perspectives outlined in the article to form an opinion and use facts to support their claims. They were to use supporting evidence to back their claims as they prepared to participate in a Socratic Seminar discussion (also known as a fish bowl).

I know what you’re thinking. You made them talk about such a loaded topic, and in Spanish?? You must like to play with fire…

The trick was to find an article that summarizes different perspectives using data, statistics, and many, many cognates. The variety of opinions that were present in the article reflected my students’ different viewpoints. No matter which angle they took for the discussion, they were able to use empirical evidence to justify it.

Upon reflection, my students were thankful to have topics as hot as immigration and healthcare to debate. There was a lot to say and it involved a real problem that affects real Spanish-speakers, which was even more motivation for them to become well-versed on the topic. Maybe it even caused them to sympathize with the perspective of a Spanish-speaker, or learn the grammar to effectively communicate. (One can dream, right?) And although the discussion became long and heated, it was respectful. In the end, every single one of them was able to create an argument and understood the importance of backing it up with evidence from the article so as not to sound like ignorant members of society, but rather well-informed humans who can interact in an authentic conversation.

Yes, it was a huge task. It was risky and intense. It was challenging and personal. Maybe I was playing with fire by asking teens to debate such hot-button political issues on the heels of a turbulent election season. But witnessing my students justify themselves in Spanish, I knew it was was worth it. And it’s the best thing they’ve done.