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Teaching Spanish and flexing the “empathy muscle”

The Bard College Master of Arts in Teaching program now offers a Spanish discipline

Por Inés Chapela
October 2018
Learning a new language makes you “flex the empathy muscle” observes Nicole Caso, professor of Spanish at Bard College. It means getting out of your comfort zone and understanding what it means to express yourself in a language that is not your own. For monolingual students, learning another language also helps them understand that there are more ways to see the world.
"Education, as Nelson Mandela said, is the weapon that could transform the world” says Alhassan Susso, winner of Teacher of the Year award for New York State, in a video on his Youtube channel. Susso is a high school teacher and graduate of the Master of Arts in Teaching, MAT, program at Bard College. Susso immigrated to the US from Gambia and has been working for six years at the International Community High School in the South Bronx neighborhood of New York. His goal? To empower young immigrants and propel them towards a productive life. Susso explains: “We don’t only teach kids academics, but we are teaching them philosophical ways of thinking so that some of the challenges that we are facing could begin to be alleviated.” The work that Susso does in connecting the classroom with society at large resonates with the spirit of the Bard MAT program, from which he graduated in 2012.

Patricia López-Gay, professor of Spanish at Bard and member of the group that collaborated to create the new Spanish discipline within Bard MAT, says that not only does learning a new language represent a personal means to explore and discover the world, language is also “a practical tool of communication that has become necessary in an increasingly globalized world". Susso and López-Gay share the fundamental understanding that we live in a world that is in need of dialogue, both in the classroom as well as in the community.

Unlike other educational institutions, the Bard MAT Spanish program, and Bard college in general, look to generate a constant interdisciplinary dialogue. Nicole Caso, director of the Spanish program at Bard, explains that this dialogue “is a way to go about connecting, in an organic way, the Latin American and the Spanish, with another kind of question, with knowledge and academic thought.” The academic fusion which occurs at Bard allows Caso and her colleagues to teach a language while at the same time exploring diverse themes such as poetry or human rights in the same class. In this way, professors can integrate course material with their respective areas of study. In the case of Nicole Caso, weaving together literature with culture, history and politics.

Professor Caso explains that the liberal arts model of integrating the fundamental coursework of learning a language with academic topics such as politics and history, results in very positive educational experiences for the students. She observes that for many of her undergraduates “it’s an enormous accomplishment for the students; many of which are just starting to learn Spanish, and by the end of their college journey are speaking at quite a sophisticated level”. The liberal arts approach to teaching a language is in contrast to the negative experiences that Spanish students often experience in high school. Caso explains that quite often high school students are frustrated by the process of learning Spanish. They “feel like they never progress, they actually speak English in class, they don’t see any connections [between what they learn in class] and the real world”. In short, the students experience a long list of frustrations that overtime can be discouraging.

A certification for work

In part as a response to the deficiency of Spanish teaching in schools, Nicole Caso and her colleagues Melanie Nicholson and Patricia López-Gay came together to create the Spanish discipline at Bard MAT. Knowing the importance of having creative and innovative teachers passionate about teaching Spanish, the MAT program decided to create the new discipline. The Spanish program is added to the existing disciplines that Bard MAT offers: Biology, History, Math and English literature. As of June 2018, Bard MAT students can now choose Spanish as their MAT discipline. Students that choose this discipline graduate with a Masters and with a certificate to teach Spanish to grades 7 through 12 in the State of New York.

Although the teaching certificate that graduates receive is specific to the State of New York, it can easily be transferred to other states. Cecilia Maple, Bard MAT’s Assistant Director for Admissions and Student Affairs, explains that the NY State certification is essentially “the gold standard when it comes to certifications. It is accepted, via reciprocity, in most every other state in the U.S”. Currently, there are MAT alums teaching in every state of the United States, except for Alaska and Hawaii. In some cases, the certification can also be transferred to international schools. The Bard MAT website provides a long list of schools where alums of the program are teaching, including those working abroad in eight different countries, from Qatar to Norway. MAT graduates don’t have trouble finding work after graduation, says Cecilia Maple, who cites that roughly 90% of graduates find work immediately after exiting the program.

Perhaps the high rate of recruitment has to do with the large amount of fieldwork and practical experiences required of MAT students. MAT combines postgraduate coursework with fieldwork in local public schools. In general, these schools fall within a radius of 30 miles from the Bard College campus in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. Spanish MAT students have a lot of opportunities to engage their pedagogic formation: they teach in local public schools and they also collaborate with the Spanish program professors at Bard as teaching assistants. While most other postgraduate teaching programs offer less opportunities for fieldwork, the Spanish program at MAT requires 100 days of fieldwork, which is more than double the State requirement.

Content and attention

Not only does Bard MAT offer extensive fieldwork opportunities, the students in the program also benefit from a lot of individual attention. In contrast with similar programs in larger universities, the Bard MAT program is very small, which allows students to have a close working relationship with professors and mentors. In total, the MAT program has 25 students, roughly 5 students per discipline, which represents an optimal size for guided learning.

Graduates leave the program with an appreciation of the liberal arts style of teaching and with useful content for their future classes. The Spanish MAT discipline requires its students to take at least two classes in Latin American and Spanish culture. These courses present an alternative model for Spanish course content, they dive into material that is not normally addressed in schools. One example of this alternative educational model is the class called Culturas y Sociedades de Latinoamérica y España, (Cultures and Societies of Latin America and Spain). The course covers topics such as gender building by way of historical figures like the Malinche or the Virgin of Guadalupe, and it also questions common tropes that exist in Latin American culture. The class examines the binary “barbarism-civilization” and asks the question “is conquest a just war?”

By exploring new themes and engaging critical thinking, the Spanish program classes communicate that a language is much more than a linguistic structure. For Nicole Caso, the fact that Bard MAT is teaching an alternative model for Spanish learning implies not only an educational accomplishment but also a social change. Through teaching a new language, instructors open the possibility for a wider conversation -- a considerable achievement given that we are now more than 60 million Latinos living in the US.

CONTACT: For more information: [email protected], 845-758-7145,
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