As politics become increasingly prevalent in our daily lives, students struggle to determine the role they should play in the classroom. Many Spanish students notice politics sometimes creep into the classroom and wonder if it is appropriate to be discussing political opinions in their language classes. As students reach higher levels of Spanish, they learn more about the culture and history of Spanish countries rather than just basic grammar and vocabulary.
Spanish V Honors teacher Anderson Julio said, “Indirectly, politics touch everything, but I don’t think it’s a main focus of the classes at all. The goal of the class is to develop language and cultural understanding.” Overall, Spanish classes do not focus much on current political events, but topics, such as immigration, have become politically charged. Spanish A and Spanish IV Honors teacher Laura Yamartino said, “What we’re really doing is trying to look at people, stories, and issues that impact the Spanish speaking world, and even though they’re not inherently political, a lot of them have been politicized recently.”
Spanish III, III Honors, and IV Honors teacher Elizabeth Benjamin-Alcayaga said, “Social justice issues have recently become convoluted with political perspectives, which can be a little bit problematic. It’s hard in our current climate to separate politics and social justice because of what’s going on in the country. The classes that I’ve taught really focus on understanding other perspectives and experiences –– what Latinx people experience in our country and their countries ––, not necessarily focusing on the political aspect of things.”
The history of interactions between Hispanic countries and the United States are some of the most politically relevant topics covered in Spanish classes. Benjamin noted the importance of these interactions, especially the role that the United States has played in creating situations of political corruption, violence, and poverty, as these events are often not covered in other history classes.
Since this history can portray the United States in a negative light, it can seem biased or politicized in a way to some students, especially those who have not learned about it before. “I try to present as many sides as possible. We read the diary of Columbus to get that perspective [on Columbus’s arrival in the Americas], as well as the other side –– the indigenous people. With just one side, it would be incomplete information,” Julio said.
Spanish V student Sarah Averill (Class I) noted the presence of multiple perspectives in her class. “We learned about the Dirty War in Argentina, talked about both political sides, and watched a movie on it.” Julio said, “It is a rare case in advanced classes that you find a good movie that doesn’t have a political component; good foreign films are political, so you talk about politics.”
As far as personal political views go, Spanish teachers generally try to keep their own opinions separate from the class. However, most Nobles students know that the majority of teachers are liberal, and can generally make accurate guesses about their teacher’s political opinions. Yamartino said, “I definitely worry that students will think they have to say what aligns with my beliefs; as teachers, we have the position of power, but hopefully students know that they can state their opinions.”
Furthermore, Julio said, “It’s hard to separate your person from what you’re teaching; I am an immigrant –– it’s impossible to separate my experience, but that doesn’t mean I talk about politics or that I express my opinions on immigration.”
When it comes to students stating their political opinions in class, Spanish IV student Max Farber (Class II) said, “No one’s going to go against the teacher, regardless of political views.” Spanish III Honors student Ethan Skelly (Class II) said, “I don’t feel comfortable expressing my own political views; I can’t articulate myself well in Spanish.” Another Spanish III Honors student, Henry Patterson (Class III), said, “I’ve never felt uncomfortable [about the presence of politics in class], but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone did.”
A lack of ability to speak about issues is precisely what Nobles’ Spanish classes aim to combat. “We want students to be able to make decisions on their own about current events by giving them information and facts, and helping them to be aware of social justice issues connected to the experiences of people who speak Spanish: to empathize with different global perspectives,” Benjamin-Alcayaga said.
Skelly, along with a Spanish IV Honors student who prefers to remain anonymous, both think that political opinions can play a role in a student’s final grade. However, Averill said, “I don’t think one’s political opinion affects their grade in the class –– political opinions can affect a teacher’s opinion of a student, but not their grade.”
Spanish IV and V teacher Meg Jacobs said, “What I have observed is that most hesitancy comes from students who feel like they’re the only one in their class who feels a certain way; students may be worried about criticism from their classmates.” This issue tends to come from more conservative students, who are generally considered the political minority at Nobles.
Due to the topics covered in Spanish classes, politics inevitably emerge in the classroom. Julio said, “You touch upon politics when you talk about culture and history, and why the culture developed in such a way. Political decisions were made that had an impact on how people lived, and because of that, culture was affected.”
Overall, teachers emphasized the importance of students forming and sharing their own opinions. Yamartino said, “We’re trying to empower students by giving them a knowledge of the issues ––the ability to take the facts and draw their own conclusions.” Julio agreed: “One of the principles of the class is being honest and expressing your opinions; I encourage my kids to speak their mind. My role is to help kids digest their own opinions and try to understand all sides, not to give my viewpoint.”
By Meredith McBride, Staff Writer, December 2018