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Teaching Culture

Entering competitions and contests
Suggestions for stimulating students' interest in poetry
Using music in the classroom
How to perform a demo lesson to kids that speak different languages?
Popular culture in the classroom
Using videos to teach culture
Using videos and music in class
Italian holidays
Language clubs: focus on culture

Entering Competitions and Contests


I often have students who want to enter some sort of a contest. Even though I think their work is very commendable – even outstanding – they never seem to win any recognition. What am I missing? What should I be checking for to be sure they are competitive?


Looking for a Win

Dear Looking for a Win,

It is amazing how many incomplete entries are received for very important competitions. It is also amazing how few submissions there are for a lot of these competitions. The first step to submitting a winning entry is to create interest on the part of your students. Follow up with general instructions on how to create the submission. Finally, everyone (student, sponsor, and/or teacher) should triple-check everything before sending it off. It is important to leave plenty of time to do the triple-checking at all levels so that there is time to fix the omissions and/or mistakes and triple-check again until everything is right.

There are many types of contests, with many types of submissions. The following is a general list of how to approach the preparation of a submission and should be transferrable to any type of product, be it a poster or essay, an electronic product, or a live presentation. With some modification, these guidelines can be used for applications to workshops or summer experiences as well.

Create interest
• Introduce the topic and the required product to the class in an exciting way.
• Announce local recognitions, as well as regional, state, and national prizes.

Prepare for creating the end product
• Make a check-off list of the required elements (content, presentation, etc.).
• Brainstorm about how the topic can be properly and excitingly represented in the end product.
• Demonstrate well-planned end products and contrast them with not-so-well planned ones, so that students can see the difference.

Individual work
Release students to work on their own end product, giving them a time line to follow. This time line should allow sufficient time for editing, proof reading, and final assembly of the correct entry forms and the end product, along with any personal statements that may be required by the contest organizers.

Check student progress regularly and remind them to follow the directions.

Before submitting
Before the final product is due to the teacher or sponsor, the student should check the content, appearance, and assembly of the submission package:
• Does the end product address the theme or problem presented?
• Are all special requirements included? (maybe a sponsor’s logo)
• Check carefully for grammar and spelling.
• Check the facts.
• Is it well organized and readable by a general audience?
• Does it have an introduction and a conclusion?
• Is it neat, correct, within the special requirements, and colorful?
• Is it creative, without being obtuse or too cute?
• Is it eye-catching?
• Is it the correct size?
• Is it done in the correct media?
• Make sure everything is appropriately labeled.
• Be sure everything is assembled in the proper order.
• Verify that all signatures, and dates, are on all of the forms.
• Include the entry fee, in the proper payment form, made out correctly.

Re-read everything several times, each time with an eye to one of the requirements set out in the contest announcement. Check off the list as you confirm that each individual point is correct and complete. You do not want to be disqualified because of a careless mistake or omission.

I have served on many types of committees whose purpose was to select winning candidates. I am always amazed at how few entries are received, and then really disappointed when entries must be disqualified because of essential elements such as:
• Missing required components
• Missing signatures
• Missing entry fees
• Names on the front, instead of on the back, of posters
• Sloppy appearance
• Poor spelling and grammar

Look for opportunities for your students to participate in contests. Regional and state foreign language organizations often have annual events with good prizes. National foreign language associations all have something (ACTFL sponsors a podcast contest for Discover Languages). The contest doesn’t have to be through a foreign language entity; it might be something offered by the PTA or the local newspaper. Most themes can have an international and/or foreign language twist to them. All of this makes for good public relations opportunities for your program, your school, and your students.

In the end, submitting something to a contest really isn’t so different from submitting something to a teacher for a grade. Good luck, and pay attention to the details! You’ll find more successes coming your way.

Note: The information included here is based on a session the author presented at the October 2006 FLAVA Conference in Richmond, VA with co-presenter Karen Falcon.



Ideas for Language Contests and Competitions:

Le Grand Concours is an annual competition sponsored by the American Association of Teachers of French.
Students of French in grades 1-12, in all 50 states and abroad, compete against each other for prizes. Grades 1-6 participate in the FLES Contest. Grades 7-12 in the Secondary Contest.
Students take a written test and compete against students with similar educational background for prizes including certificates, medals, books, dvds, trips, and scholarships.
Students enter via their French teacher. All students are eligible -- home school parents or private tutors can request information on participation from the nearest Chapter Administrator. Students of non-AATF members are also welcome to participate.

FLES Poster Contest
Each year The AATSP sponsors a poster contest for all elementary/middle school students of AATSP members in good standing. It is an excellent opportunity for classroom activity and student recognition. It's also a great way to engage the enthusiasm of our youngest students!

2010 ACTR Russian Scholar Laureate Awards for High School
The nominations period for the 2010 American Council of Teachers of Russian (ACTR) Russian Scholar Laureate Awards for high school juniors and seniors is open until June 30. Members of the American Council of Teachers of Russian who teach on the secondary level are invited to nominate ONE sophomore or junior high school Russian student for this award. If not a member of ACTR or if your membership has expired please visit ACTR’s new Web pages at to join or renew.

Goethe Institut - Favorite Book Contest
Erzählen Sie uns von Ihrem Lieblingsbuch! Erzählen Sie uns und anderen, was für Sie das Besondere, das Einmalige an Ihrem Lieblingsbuch ist und welche Freundschaft Sie mit diesem Buch verbindet! Teilen Sie Ihre Begeisterung mit anderen!

Wir suchen die schönsten, in deutscher Sprache verfassten Lieblingsbücher, jedoch keine Übersetzungen. Ihr ebenfalls deutschsprachiges Plädoyer sollte uns per Post oder Teilnahmeformular erreichen. Ihrer Liebeserklärung sind dabei keine Grenzen gesetzt: Schreiben Sie viel oder wenig. Hauptsache Sie schreiben!

Wir freuen uns, wenn Deutschlerner und Deutschliebhaber im In- und Ausland am Wettbewerb teilnehmen!

Travel for Teens!, the experts in teen travel worldwide, invites foreign language students to participate in an essay contest with the goal of increasing young people's knowledge and understanding on the importance of worldwide friendship.
The winner receives a free trip to the famous Cinque Terre region, on the rugged coast of the Italian Riviera, where they will participate in a community service project, and explore the splendors of Rome, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast. All students enrolled in grades 7-12 in public, private and home schools are eligible. Complete contest rules can be found at

Win a Trip to Visit a German University with Deutsche Welle
"Studi-DW", the Deutsche Welle program about studying in Germany, has announced a contest with the chance to win a trip to Germany to visit a University in Bonn or Berlin. To win, visit the Studi-DW website, read the articles and fill out the quiz before May 31. All students outside Germany are eligible to win, and the grand prize is airfare and two nights' accommodation to visit a University of your choice in Bonn or Berlin. Winners are also invited to tour Deutsche Welle's studios. Second and third prize are an Ipod Nano and Shuffle, respectively. The quiz is in German.

American Foreign Service Association
The American Foreign Service Association wants to hear what students think will be the biggest challenges facing the Foreign Service in the 21st Century, and in return are offering a first prize of $2500, $500 to the school, and an expenses-paid trip to DC.

Global Leadership Adventures (GLA) Scholarship: GLA has volunteer, leadership and cultural immersion programs in Brazil, South Africa, Ghana, India, and Costa Rica, and is offering a Diversity Scholarship of $1000 towards the program fees. Apply on a rolling basis.

ACTFL National Student Video Podcast Contest to Celebrate Discover Languages Month
Get your students involved in celebrating, educating, and communicating the value of language learning! They can express their views in a one-minute video and teachers can easily upload the video to enter their students in the contest. Students over 18 years of age can enter on their own. This contest is co-sponsored by Pearson Prentice Hall and ASC Direct.


Suggestions for stimulating students' interest in poetry

Have you any suggestions for teaching poetry in the FL classroom? I plan to dedicate a few hours to poetry in my advanced … class, and would like to make it interesting and compelling for the students (young adults in mid-late 20s). How can I get them excited about poetry in L2 if they have absolutely no interest in poetry in their own language?

Dear Poet,
Thank you for your interesting question about how to interest students in the reading of poetry. I know nothing about poetry in your language, so I cannot offer you specific poems or ideas, but I can share some general techniques that have proven to help students open their minds to poetry.

My December 2008 column addresses your concerns. You can access it directly at . What I suggest in that column is that you work with the sounds of the poetry (music, wind, horse's hooves, tapping, melody).

Other approaches would include reading for the story of the poem, or the visual images (nature, people, setting). Depending on the class, you may ask them to draw a picture, or a series of sketches, of the poem. These sketches could represent the story, the sounds, or what the individual feels as he listens to the poem. You might ask students to act out the story of the poem.

The intricacies of poetic structure are baffling to many people, and I usually do not work with rhyme, meter and other structural elements until they are comfortable with reading poetry and/or they begin to ask questions about the structure. One particularly successful exercise is the following: I ask the class to write a 30-50 word description of a picture. We then share the descriptions and look at 1) the variety of content, 2) the amazing array of descriptive words, 3) the language used - meaning the "quality" of the prose. I then ask them to read a short poem about the same topic. They are amazed at what the poem can to do add dimension to the topic! Then they explore the differences and come to understand how the poem becomes such a powerful piece of work. Once students see that poetry is a form of expression, they become more comfortable.

Stay away from complicated poems, ones that have lots of imagery, and ones that are long. Knowing what colors or birds represent provides a deeper meaning, but I hold those until students are willing to read the poem for its story. Pull out some children's poems that are very popular and use them as a basis for familiarity.

Good luck and I hope your students develop a liking of poetry.

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How to perform a demo lesson to kids that speak different languages?

I was on your web site and read some information you have provided for teacher teaching another language but English. I have a demo lesson to perform to a group of 4th graders in Social Studies where 50% are English speakers and 50% Spanish speakers. Could you give some ideas, I'm a little lost

Dear Latinadiva,
Without knowing the purpose, content, or length of your demo lesson, I can only respond in general terms. I presume from your description of the class that each language groups does not know the other language, which I find surprising at this point in the year.

A lot of action, pictures, repetition, and modeling is what I recommend. If you can develop participation modules that last a couple of minutes to illustrate a given point, that might help. Cute drawings on posters that can be magneted to the white board, pinned to the wall, or taped onto something, are good props to use. Make them in a size that is easy for you to manage and to shuffle around. Art work illustrating the particular topic is also a good idea. Is the purpose of this demo lesson to teach the children content? If so, once you have presented content in both languages, then you might have the students teach each other the words in the other language. Some matching games that involve physical activity might be a good idea, too.

I'm sure that the regular teachers of the class can give you some more concrete ideas.

I hope these ideas help you. If not, let me know a bit more information about the class and I'll see what I can do.

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Using music in the classroom

Dear YANA:
I have this really cool CD of a very popular singer and I want to share it with my classes. Do you have any suggestions for how I can incorporate it into my lessons and at the same time convey my joy in the music?
Music Lover

Dear Music Lover:
For some people music is a natural part of their teaching, and for others it takes a great deal of work to include it naturally into the lesson. Music is something that people relate easily to, and even more so if they have an appreciation of the lyrics, rhythms, and sounds. Think about what is so appealing in the CD for you and work from there.

First, I would suggest that you just play the music for your students, perhaps as they come into class. Watch their reaction to it. If they react in an extremely positive way, you’re on your way home.

Prepare something about the artist. There is an infinite amount of information available on the Internet about everything. Give them just enough information to pique their interest, but do enough research so you can answer questions. Have students prepare interviews with the artist. Turn in the questions and you select the "best" ones for a webquest about the artist.

Choose a song with lyrics that the students can hear clearly and has acceptable content. Use a cloze activity to start them on the listening. Once students have the lyrics down, a discussion can ensue about the content, even if it isn’t very profound. Consider the versification, the refrains, and how the title reflects the content of the song. When they know the words, have them do karaoke.

What instrumentation is used? How does this add to or detract from the song? Same thing for the rhythm. Does the tempo change from one part of the song to another? Why? Of the instruments used, are any of them typical of the culture you are teaching? Create a webquest of other instruments typical of the culture.

The bottom line is to use music to enrich the students’ lives, not to make music another drudgery exercise in class.

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Popular culture in the classroom

Dear YANA,
I have noticed other teachers using contemporary videos and music in the FL classes and I'd love to include them into my classes too. Do you have any suggestions for incorporating popular culture into the curriculum?
Millennium teacher

Dear Millennium teacher,
Using popular culture such as motion pictures, TV, comic books, fiction, music, dance, sports, art or artifacts, is a great way to motivate students. Including authentic materials that appeal to young people will personalize the lessons and allow students to help design activities. The best way to determine what students will be interested in learning about is to ask them. Find out what music they listen to and what sorts of movies, sports, and magazines they enjoy. You can locate target language examples of these on the web and create activities to go with them. For some ideas on sites with target language resources check out: or Once students have been exposed to authentic materials, turn the lesson over to them. Encourage them to find and report on target language examples of their interests. Have students present these to each other and their parents in a pop-art gallery evening.

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Using videos to teach culture

Dear YANA,
I would like to teach French culture by using a French film video, but my students are low-intermediate and won't understand most of the dialogue. Is there a way to simplify the language?
Film Phobic

Dear Film Phobic,
Your idea of using authentic French video at the intermediate level is laudable and possible. After all, no one in France speaks "beginning" French, so students have to come to grips with the real thing sooner or later. In making authentic French accessible, you have to consider three things:

  • Is it a "good" video?
  • How can you prepare your students to watch this video?
  • What can you reasonably ask your students to do with this video?

Let's first talk about what makes a good video. The video you select should, of course, have a clean soundtrack and good diction. Redundancy of language is also critical. Language that describes what is happening explicitly combined with action on the screen is a valuable tool. Consider the two sample dialogues below. The first excerpt explains exactly what the characters mean, while the second excerpt leaves too much to be inferred.

1) A: "You're a thief!"
B: "Me? A thief? If this is a joke, it's in poor taste."
A: "Then explain the 100,000 euros we found stashed in your apartment in Lyon."
B: "I didn't steal that money. I was safeguarding it."
2) A: "You thief!"
B: "Huh?"
A: "You know what I mean. The cash."
B: "Buzz off!"
A: "We found it."

Predictability is also important. Here "bad" filmmaking (predictable plots, poor editing, clichéd dialogue, and overacted characters) is the language learner's best friend. "Soap opera" storylines are, therefore, perfect!) Avoid stories with complicated plots, lightning pacing, impenetrable philosophical underpinnings, and finely nuanced character development. Unfortunately, even the "best" of authentic video is usually still too hard to present "raw" to beginning or even intermediate learners. But don't change the script; change the students' preparation and the expectations they should get from what they see. Students watching a foreign-language video should be on an even playing field with native listeners. They should have (1) the same background knowledge and (2) the same predictive ability.

Providing background knowledge means giving students some history on the genre, plot, cultural references and even cinematic style. YANA can follow her favorite TV show ("Law and Order") because she knows how the police work in a big American city, what the urban crime scene looks like, and how the U.S. criminal justice system works. She also knows who all the characters are because her best friend clued her in before she watched her first episode. Finally, she knows the format of American cop shows. Without that background, comprehension would have been hopeless. Give your students the same shot. And, yes, giving away the plot is OKAY!

Having students make predictions helps them focus on the story. Native listeners are always trying to figure out what's going to happen next, even if only subconsciously. But listeners in a foreign language often panic and forget to do this. Your job is to remind them - explicitly - and in advance. There are two other steps you can take to help organize the viewers' thinking in advance of the actual viewing.

When preparing your lesson, decide what's reasonable for students to get out of the video. For example, you might say, "Watch this five-minute snippet and figure out who the bad guy is. Be ready to say why you think this." On a more relaxed second viewing, you might then supply some of the main plot elements. It's also a good idea to go over a list of new words and phrases. Give your students a few key phrases without which comprehension is impossible (and make sure they HEAR them, not just read them). But avoid the urge to audio-gloss everything. Give the minimum necessary for comprehension.

One more piece of advice: Don't show the entire video at once. Divide it into small chunks. Short-term memory suffers in a foreign language. Even when the learners understand what they hear, they cannot retain it all in their short-term memory. So avoid memory stress. You might want to break up an hour-long show into five- or ten-minute segments to be shown as a treat at the end of class. At the beginning of each showing, summarize what went on last time. And at the end of each segment, ask your students what might happen next. Then relax, sit back and enjoy the show. THEY certainly will.

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Using videos and music in class

Dear YANA,
I have noticed other teachers using contemporary videos and music in the FL classes and I'd love to include them into my classes too. Do you have any suggestions for incorporating popular culture into the curriculum?
Millennium teacher

Dear Millennium teacher,
Using popular culture such as motion pictures, TV, comic books, fiction, music, dance, sports, art or artifacts, is a great way to motivate students. Including authentic materials that appeal to young people will personalize the lessons and allow students to help design activities. The best way to determine what students will be interested in learning about is to ask them. Find out what music they listen to and what sorts of movies, sports, and magazines they enjoy. You can locate target language examples of these on the web and create activities to go with them. For some ideas on sites with target language resources check out: or Once students have been exposed to authentic materials, turn the lesson over to them. Encourage them to find and report on target language examples of their interests. Have students present these to each other and their parents in a pop-art gallery evening.

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Italian Holidays

Dear YANA,
Do you have any fun ideas for cultural holiday activities? I teach college level Italian.
Lara Sasso

Dear Lara,
Students usually remember the cultural activities in the foreign language class long after the course is over. These memories are especially sweet when refreshments are the focus. A focus on food is appropriate for a holiday lesson. For example, as an Italian teacher, you can teach your students something about Christmas traditions in Italy. Bring in a panettone (Christmas cake), some Baci (Italian chocolate candies), and pan pepato (pepper fruit cake). In large cities, you can probably find an Italian store that sells these delicacies. If you don't have such a store, check out the Italian recipe sites on the Web and make your own.

This type of lesson is useful in that students not only learn about cultural traditions but they also learn important vocabulary, in this case, vocabulary related to food and to the Christmas holiday. You can expand this lesson by providing your students with copies of the holiday recipes and other information about the holiday. Why not play a CD with Christmas songs in the target language while the students enjoy the food?

All cultures have special foods associated with particular holidays so whatever language you teach, you can make holiday foods your focus. Give your students a treat! And remember that college students enjoy such lessons as much as middle school students.

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Language Clubs: Focus on Culture

Hello YANA,
I teach high-school Spanish and I want to start a Spanish club next year. Do you have ideas about what Spanish Clubs do? (i.e., activities, etc.) Any assistance would be appreciated.
Robin Bailey

Dear Robin,
A Spanish club is a great way to introduce your students to other cultural traditions and beliefs, build community and have fun with your students! I suspect you will find that once you get started, your main problem will be finding the time to do all of the cool things you have planned. To start out, I would entice students with ideas on Hispanic culture, meals, music, festivals, films and sports. Make the club open to anyone interested in learning about another culture. Encourage your Spanish learners to invite classmates to join too. Make up a flyer that lists Target Culture foods and holidays that you intend to explore. Depending on your resources, suggest taking a field trip to a local restaurant or Latin American soccer game. Check out what Hispanic resources your local community has to offer. Regular visits to your Hispanic cultural center are a great community outreach and provides students with an opportunity to practice Spanish with native speakers.

Inaugurate the club during Hispanic Heritage month, which conveniently falls at the start of the school year. (September 15th to October 15th). At the first meeting, have your students brainstorm ideas. The more creative input they have in the club, the more likely they are to stick with it. I would also enlist the help of native Spanish speaker parents, other teachers, the school librarian and community members. The club could sponsor visitor presentations like a Mexican cooking lesson or Salsa dancing. Students might organize an art display of photography, music, paintings or folklore or learn songs and dances from different Hispanic nations. Students can lead club fundraising activities as well. For example, they can organize a school community Hispanic dinner. In club meetings, students organize the logistics and invite students, parents and teachers.

Finally, I recommend asking the folks on the FLTEACH listserv. They have tons of fantastic ideas for classroom and extracurricular activities. Your mailbox will be filled with helpful responses and discussion on various topics of interest to language educators.
Best of luck!

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