20 June 2011

Ethics in the language class - we aren't their parents

I have a question for you - where do you draw the line in your language class as far as ethics?

photo by Simon Q

Here's my bias: I teach at a private faith-based (Christian) school, and I have to be very careful about what I show to my students and expose them to. More than that, I have personal convictions (actually much higher those of most of my students) that prevent me from showing many things I could show them without really getting in trouble with my school. I won't show commercials or news clips that show women in very revealing clothing. I won't show videos with suggestive dancing or themes, even in our favorite songs like Espacio sideral and No te pido flores and Sigo con ella (a song I love to use in class because of its actual positive depiction of faithful love- hard to find in almost any genre).

Aside from my personal convictions, and my school's guidelines, my perspective on the field in general is that we are not their parents. Parents have a special responsibility to filter our child's world, which is why we set rules, disallow certain clothing, prevent them from buying certain music or video games, and don't expose them to too much too soon. I don't know what the filter is that my students' parents have set for them, but I do know that it is not my place to violate that filter.

Here are some items I've come across in my teaching experience with music and film that I would choose not to allow in my classroom.

Now, I'm not against rated R movies just because they are rated R. I show my senior class Pan's Labyrinth every year as part of a series of activities to expose them to the truth about the Spanish Civil War and contrasting fantasy and reality. But when I was in the AP Spanish workshop a few years ago, the leader showed us a film that she used in her classes, even lower-level classes. The film was De eso no se habla, and the plot basically goes like this, if I remember correctly - an older, well-traveled man settles in an Argentinian village where he falls in love with a talented, 15-year-old midget. He fights his attraction for her in several ways, including traveling and regular visits to the local brothel, where he also runs into the [married] town mayor. He is able to marry her, but then she is for some reason unhappy, and in the end he watches as she runs away on the circus train to be with people who are like her. Sounds great, eh? I mentioned in the workshop that if I showed the movie I'd be fired. Another teacher said she taught at a public school but because of her personal convictions she'd never show it. I thought to myself, exactly what principles and life lessons are in this movie that I want to expose to my students? Because everyone knows that we aren't just there to teach them language, and that's certainly not all they learn from us.

I think of Ricardo Arjona as the Shakira of Guatemala. His music is very well done and mostly trashy. I actually used to use at least part of two of his songs, Quién (excellent for listening comprehension of numbers) and Pingüinos en la cama (which has the rare feature of using almost every option for continuous present in the space of about three sentences). I thought, hey, I'll just play certain parts and leave out the rest, or the language is too advanced and they won't get it, or surely they won't look up the video. Yeah, right. The first year I tried this, I had a student, we'll call him Enrique, who decided he loved Arjona, looked up the songs and their videos and their lyrics, and you can imagine how that went. I put the songs away and never used them again.

So there's me; I just can't in good conscience let myself take the place of my students' parents in the name of 'exposing them to other cultures' and 'well, they're getting worse at home anyway.' What about you? What's your ethical standard?


Sra. Spanglish said...

I showed them "Duele" by Kalimba...if it weren't for the scandal, I don't know if they would have given it a second thought, as all clothes stayed on and they were really just dancing kind of close, not even really kissing.

As for ethics beyond sex? I definitely got a charge out of teaching the narcocorridos unit. It was, after all, you that taught me to go for topics that grabbed them! I think my style is a little more political and less personal than yours, though. So far, so good...

Anonymous said...

This is an enormous struggle for me, as I am more naive than most of my students! I often find myself watching a video over and over and over, trying to take myself back to sixth grade and imagining what I might have thought if I had watched that video in class. I had several traumatizing moments throughout middle and high school and college as I was exposed to material beyond my comfort zone. Most concepts appear in many songs or videos--you may not be able to use the "best" one, but usually there is an acceptable alternative that is appropriate for school. I think that it is far more important to match your ethical barometer to the most innocent students rather than to the majority. Their parents have worked hard to maintain it, for whatever reason, and it would be a professional failure to the parent if I spoiled their years of hard work. I am NOT their parent, and so I must defer to the parent’s wishes for their children. If I plan to show or study anything controversial, I notify parents and ask them if they would like for me to make special arrangements for their child. I also think that it is also important for teachers to have conversations with their students about morals and why we choose to show some videos but not others. It helps them begin to reflect on ethics and develop their own personal ethical code. What is it about those videos that I don't want students to see? Why do I see that thing as a problem? What message is the singer trying to convey--and what are the subliminal messages being delivered along with it? Do my students agree or disagree with my view and with the views of the artist? Use the opportunity to teach media literacy to your students! You could even use it to begin a conversation about censorship...and that could go in any number of cultural, political directions!

Sra Cottrell said...

Sometimes the key for me is the topic - and trying to imagine what my students' minds will do with it - but often the key for me is the purpose or principle in the content. I love using Jesse y Joy and Juan Luis Guerra because their music is so positive. I try to avoid using songs like, say, Irremplazable that have a theme of you did me wrong, so screw you and let's see how I can hurt you back. Songs like Labios compartidos and Tarde o temprano that give such a twisted "I don't care who has you as long as I get to have you too" view of love. I once heard Rene whatever-his-name-is from Calle 13 slip in an interview wit the comment that there was a "balance" to be found in sexist lyrics, and I've never played a single song by them, clean or not, because I won't patronize someone who thinks there's any room for degrading women in lyrics.
I guess my point is that we're trying to foster sensitive, responsible adults, and sometimes just the attitude that's in a song or video will prevent me from using it.
On the other hand, we talked in depth about the 'femicide' in Juárez and the violence there, the drug wars and terrorist activity in Colombia, deep subjects that aren't candy, but I think are important for students to understand the culture and be able to relate to its people.
But sometimes it is a fine line! Thanks for your comments.

Ken & Diana (plus one) said...

Thanks for the post! I have taught at a public school and am now at a Christian private school and have seen the two sides. Although I am not as conservative as most of my fellow Christian teachers, I am still very selective in regards to what videos I show my students. It seems as though it is getting harder to find new material though as the videos are getting worse and worse. There are a lot of great love songs but some of them talk about things that high school students shouldn't be hearing.
Thanks for recommending Jesse & Joy; I had never heard of them before!

Anonymous said...

Yes, we definitely discuss difficult/controversial/mature topics in class, and I think that those conversations are very significant components of any curriculum. As you said, it helps us understand the culture and relate to the people, but also allows for self-reflection and expands the students' minds to see that the world is much bigger than the city in which s/he lives!

I think that the problem with using "scandalous" or possibly inappropriate songs or videos lies in using them for isolated language purposes without discussing the context in which that language appears--even when you remove morals from the equation. Again, I think it goes back to media literacy and being smart consumers. Students need to examine the subliminal messages that are delivered to them through media, and how that could possibly affect their thoughts and actions in the future, even subconsciously. This is an important component of any curriculum, not just world languages. So learn the songs if you must (I'll pass, thank you!), but at least have that conversation with your students so that they are not innocent lambs being led to the slaughter. (And I would still argue that it is only appropriate to keep parents informed.)

Sra Cottrell said...

Just out of curiosity, @martinabex - what 'slaughter'?

Carolina Viviana Alayo Hidalgo Schulz said...


A mí tampoco no me gusta pasar uchas músicas , aunque aqui en Brasil estás cosas son counespasar cualquer tipo de música , pero hoy en día están uy complicados los clips , cuando trabajo en informática y ellos quieren com fondo musical para su trbajo sólo les pido que no me pongan videos con malas palabras en as letrsde las músicas , aunque aquí se escucha la música americana y yo no domino el inglés .