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by Erica Fischer on Sep 2, 2011

Integrating Culture into Foreign Language Projects

Thanks to everyone for showing up and participating in #langchat on Thursday night! As always, we had a lively discussion, and your world language education colleagues shared lots of great ideas and resources. Check out the summary below or the full archive here.

Thursday’s discussion question was “What projects do you use to integrate culture into your classes?”, but we talked about quite a few other things as well. Principally, teachers debated what exactly a project is and how to deal with culture in the foreign language curriculum.

What’s a Project?

@dr_dmd explains a project as a learning tool and an assessment of learning at the same time. The most essential element of a project is student-produced components — students must do more than simply read, watch, or even interact with information sources. Authentic materials are second in importance and essential for a successful project.

For most products, students read, listen to or watch authentic materials in the target language, then respond by producing something to indicate and use what they have learned. Projects are often summative assessments, but not necessarily. They take time, and they build up over time. However, there is lots of deep work and thinking, they’re fun and students have a feeling of accomplishment at the end. Twenty-first century projects can have digital components, which are very engaging to students, but shouldn’t blindly use technology and consider it a proper assessment.

@digitalemerge summed up projects by saying they’re essentially active production and engagement using authentic materials and resources.

Project Steps

@dr_dmd presented us with seven essentials to a complete project:

  1. A need to know
  2. A driving question
  3. Student voice and choice
  4. 21st-century skills
  5. Inquiry and innovation
  6. Feedback and revision
  7. A publicly presented product

Students need to know what they are studying and why they are doing so. The topic needs to be engaging. After that, there must be a driving question that students will answer through their research and projects. An example of a question for a Spanish class might be “How did the Spanish conquest of Latin America affect the way modern Latinos think about religion?” (@SECottrell)

Once topics and problems have been decided upon, students choose and create their own products through 21st-century skills, their questions and their creativity. It’s essential that students drive the project through their own voices at this step, both to keep them engaged and to ensure they’re absorbing the material.

Once the project is completed, feedback and revise it either with individual groups or the class as whole. Then the students must publicly present their project, either to classmates, other classes, teachers, the entire school or parents.

Integrating Culture into Foreign Language Projects

Students can learn culture without projects, but projects are great opportunities to assess students’ understanding of language and culture together. A challenge we face is how to integrate both into a project. Actually, at least in authentic projects, this shouldn’t be so difficult — @dr_dmd argues that language and culture are so integral to one another that they cannot be separated and remain authentic. As @SECottrell mentioned, it’s amazing how much cultural integration happens simply by using authentic sources.

@dr_dmd believes culture by itself can be entertaining for students, but projects require both the target language and culture. In his classes, he typically starts with a cultural notion, builds a field of the target language around it and then introduces rubrics and the project structure.

Should Culture Be Taught?

@SECottrell raised the question of whether foreign language teachers should teach culture directly or use it as a medium to teach the language. Most teachers felt that you cannot teach a world language without also addressing the culture. The question is how much of it and how it should be taught.

First, @suarez712002 believes that we should teach culture primarily in the target language, not in English — no more than 10 percent of the teaching language should be English. She reminds us that if you teach culture in English, it’s a social studies class, not a language class.

Second, many participants believe that culture shouldn’t be taught directly. Instead, we should address it while teaching the language or use it as a medium to teach or practice the language. @THEkimberlyrae mentioned that you can’t remove culture from foreign language teaching — culture and language are inseparable and everything we do with one should incorporate the other. @SECottrell summed it up by saying that if using authentic materials, the knowledge that students assimilate, understand and care about is much more than we can “teach.” Perhaps it’s best to think of it as experiencing culture rather than teaching it (@placido).

Staying Up to Date on Culture

First-time #langchatter @KristelSaxton asked “How do you keep up to date and learn more about the cultures to integrate them into projects and classes?”

  • @SECottrell thinks the best way is to constantly expose yourself through the target language’s media, as, in her words, media is the window to a culture.
  • @dr_dmd agrees, and also reads novels and watches movies from the target language’s culture. He also likes to use Skype to connect with foreign language speakers.
  • Great tools to use on the Web include social bookmarking sites such as Diigo and Delicious to keep track of online authentic resources (@pamwesely). Similarly, @dr_dmd likes to use wikis to keep track of resources, and he organizes content by class level and students’ interests.


Teachers had many different ideas for projects, but at the heart of each were student-created elements. Students can create videos (films, interviews, skits, etc.), magazines (or e-zines), books or short stories, newscasts, songs, presentations, plays or skits, articles, food — anything you or the students can think of!

As some teachers said, educating kids on culture may seem hard. For example, it’s tough for students in Iowa to go to Paris for the weekend. But through the use of authentic sources, students can learn about the culture just as well — while studying and using the target language.

Below are some of the many ideas that participants shared.

  • A great method to teach culture without using students’ native language is to use the Gouin Series (@msfrenchteach). @js_pasaporte also likes using the Gouin Series method and suggests following its use with questions to extend the conversation and test students’ comprehension.
  • When designing and introducing a project, @kaleestahr suggests using a variety of resources that connect to the theme of the unit to draw students into the topic.
  • @THEkimberlyrae did a group project in Spanish 1 last year where students created their own restaurants — each group had a different Spanish-speaking country to research and design a menu for. Students included authentic dishes and background music and created print and radio ads. The final, public presentation was a skit.
  • @THEkimberlyrae also did a similar project in Spanish 2 where students created newscasts with stories from their assigned countries. The final, public presentation was a large news event with segments from each country.
  • For the last three years, @SECottrell’s classes have built a wikispace about the Betancourt hostage rescue in Colombia.
  • @js_pasaporte requires upper-level students to create a video project titled “Pero quería decir…”. Each group has its own Spanish-speaking country and presentations include gestures, products, practices and slang to show situations with misunderstandings and their solutions.
  • @dr_dmd’s French 3 students make ABC books on Quebec. Each page of the book is a paragraph using complex sentences on cultural topics that they research (towns, authors, provinces, dates, etc.).
  • Several participants have done projects on racism within the target culture. @pamwesely thinks that these topics are tough to implement, but good for the students to be exposed to. She believes that too often we teach culture homogeneously and with a blind eye to conflict.
    • @mmebrady’s students did this project and had students create a PowerPoint comparing and contrasting the messages about racism in two of the songs they studied.
    • @SraSpanglish did one with the question of “How is the afrolatino experience different from that of other latinos, and how is it similar to that of African-Americans?” For the project, students explored the afrolatino experience through YouTube videos, picture books, music, excerpts and articles. For the output, kids wrote from the point of view of an afrolatino in the country of their choice and an American minority. They drew parallels and put resources on their class glogs.
  • @lookforsun’s students created a museum depicting different cultures and languages. Students loved it and learned quite a bit. Check out her blog post on the event.
  • One good type of essential question to kick off a project is a “what if…” situation, such as this one provided by @ZJonesSpanish’s.
  • @pamwesely provided us with a link to a variety of culture and language resources at her Diigo library.
  • @karacjacobs shared a project she made about culture for a class she took on 21st-century skills. She’d love some feedback!

Thanks again to everyone who showed up and participated in the discussion on Thursday — the discussion was insightful and had plenty of great ideas and comments. Thanks especially to our moderators from the night’s chat, Don Doehla (@dr_dmd) and Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell (@SECottrell). If you have any comments on our topic or the views of the participants, please feel free to leave one below.

Don’t forget to join us next week for #langchat on Thursday night at 8 EST. If you have anything you’d like to see addressed, make yourself heard through our voting early next week (monitor the #langchat hashtag for more info). In the meantime, check out our wiki at!

Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.


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