Surrounding Them With Culture – Literally

I would wager that, if you walk into just about any foreign language class in the world, one of the things you would see in almost all of them is flags. Whether they are suspended from the ceiling, hanging on the walls, serving as curtains, tiny flags on bulletin board borders, spread across the top of the chalk/whiteboard, painted on the walls, stuck to the front of the teacher’s desk, or something else, you’re going to see flags. Why? Well, what better way to bring a little culture into the class – and easily? The kids don’t have to be able to read to understand that they’re looking at a flag that represents a country that speaks Spanish/French/etc. And flags offer so much symbolism! Like the symbol in the center of the Mexican flag, the colors of the Bolivarian flags, and the national seals that are found on many Central American flags. What a quick, easy talking point, with an excellent visual reference built right in!

Here’s my only problem with covering the room in flags – most kids don’t know which country is represented by each flag. Unless we tell them, they can look at the same, excellent, vibrant, symbolism-full flags every day for four years and never know what they’re looking at. And let’s be honest – as foreign language teachers, our walls are an important resource. They’re a place to hang pictures of high-frequency words, verb forms, funny, cultural jokes, and all sorts of other excellent things that actually will help our students polish their writing, their speaking, and their ability to read. So if the flags aren’t actually doing something, then they’re just taking up valuable space that, perhaps, could be better used by hanging something different up.

So what do you see when you walk into my room?
This:

Classroom

Yes, flags. Many. 20, to be exact (it’s a constant source of agony for me that I don’t have a flag for Equatorial Guinea).

For three years prior to this year, I hung up five flags at a time. I have a handy strip of cork board at the back of the room, and I would hang up the flags of the countries that we were studying at the time (you know, the “culture focus” of whatever unit in the book you’re in) in my various classes. I would talk about them on the first day of the unit, when we did a little overview of the country (population, location in the world, typical foods, etc.), but then we usually didn’t mention them again. Just as my current Spanish 3 students didn’t learn where those countries were located from that little blurb, they also didn’t learn which flags represented each country.

This year, I changed things up big time. I was determined to hang up all 20 flags at the same time, and leave them up all year. So my wonderful husband and I spent one of the last days of summer climbing on desks and trying to find space to hang all these flags. Very shortly after I hung them up I thought, “This is useless. They can stare at these flags all year, but I want them to know them!” So I typed up the names of all the countries, laminated them, and attached them to the flags. Some are paper clipped on (I tried this for all of them first, but it only worked for the shortest ones, like Perú), the 5 at the back are stuck to the cork board above the flag, and most of them are stapled on at the bottom of the flag.

So, at the very least, the kids will look at the flags all year long and see the name of the country along with it.

That still wasn’t enough for me. I wanted these flags to be a talking point, a cultural reference point, and an opportunity for my students to be involved.

So I told them that they could print out pictures from the various countries and bring them in for extra credit. Just 2 points per picture, but for some of my more grade-conscious students, that’s more than enough. Additionally, since I assigned all my 1s and 2s a “country of origin” at the beginning of the year, some of them like to bring things in from “their” country.

All I ask is that the picture have some kind of caption telling what the picture is – it can be in color or black and white (some are a combination as students’ printers were running out of ink), and the caption can be written or typed, but the kids have to hang them up themselves. They just show me what they have, and tell me where it’s from, and then they tape the pictures to the appropriate flag. It generates a little interest. Pictures have ranged from maps of the country and world maps that show where the country is, to political figures, to money used in the country, to famous musicians, to famous or important places and pictures of the capital city or government building.

Last week, with my 3s and 4s, we started an art unit, and I stole this excellent idea straight from Creative Language Class: An art gallery walk. I chose a piece of art that represents each country (I tried to find one that is in a museum in that country, but for a few I had trouble), wrote a little blurb at the bottom with the title, author, year, medium, and museum (if I could find it). I printed them (in color), cut them apart, and hung each picture on its appropriate flag. Next, I put a piece of blank white paper somewhere nearby (hanging on the flag, sitting on the windowsill under the flag, etc.), and had the kids walk around and write their thoughts about each piece. Some kids wrote a lot and some wrote “(No) me gusta” for nearly every one, but overall I was pleased. I thought about having them Tweet their thoughts with an appropriate hashtag, but I really wanted the kids to be able to read each others’ opinions, and I thought they might not get to read as much from other students if they were using Twitter. I’ll have to think about how I can manage to actually use social media for this next year.

After they were all done, I projected my Google Doc and we talked about their opinions of all the pieces (that we could get to. Neither class had time to get through all of them). I took their writing down after class, but the art is still up there.

So that’s one way I surround my students with culture. How do you use flags in your classroom?

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