Infusing Empathy and Social Justice into the Classroom

In the latest issue of the journal Hispania, Dr. Deanna Mihaly details the innovative ways she promotes intercultural competence with empathy in her Spanish classroom at Virginia State University. Hispania is published by the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese. We invited Dr. Mihaly to learn more about how she brings social justice lessons into the language classroom.  Her paper, "Empathy in Spanish Language Instruction", is now available on Project MUSE. 


Can you tell us your "academic origin story"? How did you come to language instruction?
 
When I was 11 years old, I saw a girl being teased at my school bus stop. She was standing by herself and staring into the distance as kids mocked her. I tried to talk to her and realized we weren't able to communicate well. She pulled a small Spanish-English dictionary out of her backpack and I spoke my first Spanish word to her, "amigo." It should have been "amiga" I would find out later! She taught me Spanish and I taught her English. We were best friends. When I slept over at her house, we would wear matching ponchos from Ecuador with our Jordache jeans. For me, the Spanish language has always been intricately linked to open and easy comprehension of social differences, and from the start, social justice was at the core of language learning. I always planned to be a teacher and loved literature. After I spent a year abroad in Seville, Spain, I continued to study Spanish and earned a Ph.D. in contemporary Latin American women's writing.
 

Can you tell us a bit about your "why" behind bringing intercultural competence and empathy into the classroom? 

When I was teaching high school, we studied general trends and characteristics of the Generation Z students. The research revealed an interesting contrast in students, between caring deeply about issues that they related to their own lives, yet lacking empathy for issues that seemed out of their own realm of existence. Patterns of social behavior in Gen Z students also shows greater depression and anxiety and a dramatically increased risk of suicide. I wondered what I could do to foster empathy as a way to pull students out of self and into a broad concept of community. I see Spanish as a multi-faceted subject that actually expands students' horizons, conceptually and practically. Infusing social justice into the curriculum requires more complex thought and active engagement with the language while enhancing empathy. I strongly believe that contemplating other ways of life and reaching out to others will help students feel connection and purpose in their lives.
 

Can you explain what Content Based Instruction (CBI) means, for those who are unfamiliar with this approach? 

This approach positions language as necessary to learn in order to understand another topic or area of study. So, the goal is to use the language in order to communicate - rather than just making random statements in the language without a context. 
 

Your paper outlines several distinct ways you bring social justice education into your Spanish language classroom, including reading news stories about family separations, and sharing personal family trees to bring that political context closer to home. How did you conceive of this activity to make that critical connection of political and personal?

Actualizing course content is the key to student success. For more, real world issues require consideration and action. Spanish course material provides the means to engage globally. There's an activity I've used for many years in intermediate-level language classes. We research the Muro de la Memoria from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. Students find a profile of a missing person documented on the site, then they finish their life story as if they had lived and had not been "disappeared" during the Dirty War of 1975-1983. I've had students use a graphic novel format to tell the story, a poem, and short-story style narratives. These projects contain some of the best writing samples I've seen in my work. 
   
Your students also worked in a volunteer capacity with RAICES to create cards ("Cartas de Corazón") which are part of a kit given to immigrants upon their release from custody. How did they respond to this activity? 

Students absolutely loved this activity! It happened early in the semester and helped the group bond. This was a General Education class with 30 students, so the project changed the dynamic. Many students brought extra cards from home and gave them to me after the day we spent designing them in class. They wanted to do more.
 

Are there any other activities or projects that introduce social justice and empathy building you've incorporated into your lesson plans, or examples of student activity / assignments that are not detailed in your paper you can share with us?

I taught a Women's and Gender Studies seminar. I required students to form a partnership with a community group and carry out a project of their own design. We read Rebel Girls for inspirational examples of teenage girls leading social change around the world. One student staged a solo dance performance with a theater group; she donated the proceeds to a women's center. Another student worked with a local high school and her sorority. She sought donations of gowns and held a prom boutique event in a local gym. In Spanish classes, I design projects within the level of the language use, so this requires creative approaches. When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, students in my Spanish class made posters using expressions of sympathy that we studied. The activity was embedded in a lesson about emotions. They then shared them on social media and entertained questions from family members and friends that asked about the images. They also made announcements each day to the student body, facts about Puerto Rico and the hurricane. The Cartas de Corazon project is something RAICES sought on their site. I translate for asylum-seekers through the program and found the project through the volunteer portal. The cards contained messages of hope and welcome and fit in well with our initial introductions and greetings unit. I always incorporate "International" days into the curriculum. In April, students make posters about environmental topics, using commands to recommend that we: protejamos, reciclemos, conservemos, etc. Before we make the posters, they read articles about low-emissions housing abroad, eco-tourism in Costa Rica, and more. In March, we use the past tense to research the lives of preeminent women and to summarize their life's work.   It's important to embed the empathy-building projects into the curriculum, something I called "The Stealth Approach" in the past. Students need to discover the issues on their own and be involved in something new, rather than be told about it.

 
Overall, how did your students respond to your empathy building classroom activities? 

What usually happens is a spark of interest in Spanish beyond a core requirement. The projects also lead to students pursuing volunteer opportunities and opting to continue their language study abroad. The empathy-building exercises seem to enhance the course content and charge it with meaning beyond the classroom.
 

Dr. Deanna H. Mihaly is an Assistant Professor of Spanish at Virginia State University. Her research interests include film, testimonio, and Latin American women writers. She focuses her work on personal suffering and public memory-making in memoir texts and films. Her recent article, “Prosthetic Memory and Genetic Coding of Trauma in La Historia Oficial,” appears in Ámbitos Feministas (2019). Dr. Mihaly has published reflections on best practices in second language instruction, with an emphasis on social justice and inter-cultural competency in the language curriculum. 
 
Dr. Mihaly graduated with the M.A. degree in Spanish from Michigan State University. She earned the Ph.D. in Spanish from Tulane University. She has studied abroad in Spain and Mexico, and has led student travel, research, and residential experiences in: Spain, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Argentina. 
 
When she is not teaching Spanish and researching, Dr. Mihaly enjoys hiking, kayaking, and exploring new places with her family. She is an avid reader, a volunteer translator, and she is often engaged in political action and events. 
 
Division: 
Journals