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Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: A Library of Classroom Practices

Spanish: Routes to Culture

Spanish II, grades 9 - 10: This culturally rich lesson falls in the middle of a thematic unit about the African presence in Latin America. Pablo Muirhead's students identify cultural aspects of stories about a fictitious African girl who is taken to Panama and enslaved. Then they work in small groups to incorporate these cultural aspects into skits to be performed by their classmates. The class also practices playing African/Latin American box drums called los cajones.



Pablo Muirhead






Shorewood High School, Shorewood, Wisconsin

Lesson Date

November 14

Class Size



49 minutes daily

Video Summary

In this lesson, students explore some historical and cultural aspects of the African presence in Latin America. After a warm-up activity of charades, students participate in pairs discussions of stories about an African woman enslaved in Latin America. Next, the whole class creates a web (concept map) for the cultural elements of the stories. Students then work in groups to add these cultural elements to the original stories they created for homework. Finally, student groups narrate their stories while their classmates act them out. The lesson concludes with Mr. Muirhead and the students playing los cajones (the big boxes). This video also shows a field trip to the local Latino community.


Standards Addressed

Communication: Interpersonal, Interpretive, Presentational

Cultures: Practices, Products

Connections: Making Connections

Communities: School and Community


informal assessment
During an informal assessment, a teacher evaluates students’ progress while they are participating in a learning activity, for example, a small-group discussion. Results are typically used to make decisions about what to do next, namely, whether the students are ready to move on or whether they need more practice with the material.

negotiation of meaning
In this process, teachers and students try to convey information to one another and reach mutual comprehension through restating, clarifying, and confirming information. The teacher may help students get started or work through a stumbling block using linguistic and other approaches.

thematic units
Thematic units are designed using content as the organizing principle. Vocabulary, structures, and cultural information are included as they relate to the themes in each unit. For an excellent example of theme-based units, see the Nebraska Foreign Language Education Web site in General Resources. 

Connecting to Your Teaching

Reflect on Your Practice
As you reflect on these questions, write down your responses or discuss them as a group.

  • How can students be challenged to move beyond identifying cultural products and practices toward understanding perspectives?
  • What activities have helped your students expand and elaborate their communications?
  • Mr. Muirhead worked closely with a music teacher to build the big boxes. How have you collaborated with teachers of other subjects to enrich student experiences?
  • What opportunities are there for your students to use the target language outside the classroom and learn about cultures in the nearby community? For travel/study abroad?

Watch Other Videos
Watch other videos in the Teaching Foreign Languages K-12 library for more examples of teaching methodologies like those you’ve just seen. Note: All videos in this series are subtitled in English.

Russian Cities, Russian Stories (Russian) illustrates students interpreting texts (teacher-written to simulate authentic stories) and then writing their own versions, and Happy New Year! (Japanese) shows students working with cultural products and practices and moving toward understanding perspectives.

Put It Into Practice
Try these ideas in your classroom. Where it’s not already evident, reflect on how to adapt an idea that targets one performance range for application to other performance ranges.

  • Infuse language-building activities with relevant aspects of the target culture. When language study is grounded in a cultural context, it becomes more meaningful to students and they are better able to internalize it. Mr. Muirhead’s students first learned about the African presence in Latin America by reading stories about the fictional character Onama. They used both the historical and cultural elements of the stories to guide their own writing, which focused on the linguistic concepts of past time and third-person perspective.
  • Look for opportunities to let students experience a slice of the target culture in their region of the United States. Heritage communities have their own characteristics and activities to explore. If there isn’t a heritage community in your area, there may be food festivals, traveling exhibits, musical groups, or other events that you can visit with your students. Mr. Muirhead was fortunate to have a Latino community nearby, and planned several activities for the student excursion. By going into the community, students engaged with the products (foods, musical instruments, signs) and practices (salsa dancing) of this culture and experienced their importance to the neighborhood residents. Although Mr. Muirhead had to prepare extensively for this field trip, the feedback from both students and parents confirmed the value of the experience. (In addition to local trips, Mr. Muirhead has traveled outside of the United States with his students, to Cuba. During this trip, students completed self-designed projects that required contact with local people and used local resources. For example, one student group interviewed people for their study of the role of women in Cuba.)


World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages
The World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages create a roadmap to guide learners to develop competence to communicate effectively and interact with cultural understanding. This lesson correlates to the following Standards:

Communicate effectively in more than one language in order to function in a variety of situations and for multiple purposes

Interpersonal Communication

Learners interact and negotiate meaning in spoken, signed, or written conversations to share information, reactions, feelings, and opinions.

Interpretive Communication

Learners understand, interpret, and analyze what is heard, read, or viewed on a variety of topics.

Presentational Communication

Learners present information, concepts, and ideas to inform, explain, persuade, and narrate on a variety of topics using appropriate media and adapting to various audiences of listeners, readers, or viewers.

Interact with cultural competence and understanding

Relating Cultural Practices to Perspectives

Learners use the language to investigate, explain, and reflect on the relationship between the practices and perspectives of the cultures studied.

Relating Cultural Products to Perspectives

Learners use the language to investigate, explain, and reflect on the relationship between the products and perspectives of the cultures studied.

Connect with other disciplines and acquire information and diverse perspectives in order to use the language to function in academic and career-related situations

Making Connections

Learners build, reinforce, and expand their knowledge of other disciplines while using the language to develop critical thinking and to solve problems creatively.

Communicate and interact with cultural competence in order to participate in multilingual communities at home and around the world

School and Global Communities

Learners use the language both within and beyond the classroom to interact and collaborate in their community and the globalized world.


Lesson Materials
Mini-Stories (PDF, 19 K)
The Onama stories and new vocabulary, including descriptions of Mr. Muirhead’s TPRS gestures (Includes English translation)

Mini-Story Worksheet (PDF, 38 K)
A worksheet that students did for homework based on the first Onama story. Note: The vocabulary section was filled in during Mr. Muirhead’s TPRS presentation in class.

Curriculum References
Wisconsin Model Academic Standards

Pablo Muirhead’s Additional Resources

Web Resources:
The African Diaspora
Information about the African Diaspora to Latin America

Cajón Drum
A brief history of the cajón and information on how to purchase one

Language Resource Centers
An organization that works to improve student learning of foreign languages

Series Directory

Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: A Library of Classroom Practices


Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. 2003. 2016.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-731-2