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Teaching about tough issues: gangs and violence

“Con todas las clases de español que tomé no eran sobre cosas tan real como eso, como la inmigración y las pandillas.  Nadie habla de eso.”

“Lo que me sorprendió más sobre esta unidad es que hablamos sobre algo real que está pasando y por fin estamos como facing el problema, viendo lo que es el problema.”

“Yes!” I thought as I listened to my students’ conversations about our unit, “They get it and they learned something!” Major teacher moment right here. These comments I heard from my students as we wrapped up our unit on group identity/gangs really affirmed that teaching about tough issues is tough, but it provides so many benefits for our learners.

Teaching is hard. Teaching about tough issues like gangs, race, immigration, sexual violence, and gun violence is even harder. But when we do so in a way that is culturally sensitive, thought-provoking, and inquisitive, the results can be amazing. Like eyes watering when a student who has been unmotivated for two years gives you their best work ever amazing. Like pumping your fist in the air and shouting “Yes!” when reading students’ essays amazing (ok I know that’s kind of weird but it occasionally happens when they are awesome). I believe that when we treat our students like young adults who can think and reason and face the issues of the world that they will rise to the occasion.

My students certainly rose to the occasion on this last unit. The unit I created sprang out of a desire to teach about the dangers of gangs, because I knew that it was unfortunately an issue in our generally safe city. Students know that there are students at our school who are involved in gangs but instead of pretending that the issue doesn’t exist, let’s call it out and understand why. With any problem, understanding is the first step to a solution. I wanted to teach this in a way that let students discover for themselves the causes, consequences, and potential solutions to this problem. In order to help frame the unit this way, the overall theme was not gangs but a more holistic Group Identity. After all, when a person joins a gang it is usually because they want to be a part of a group, but by doing so lose personal autonomy as they are subjected to the will of the group.

We started out the unit by looking at groups around the world where members may lose their individual identity, for better or worse, as they become a member of the group. Some examples were the military, religious groups, sports teams, and police officers. We looked at common symbols of group identity like tattoos, hairstyles and clothing. Next we researched the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, whose website is also available in Spanish (whoo!) and talked about what happens when you are influenced by members of a group.

While I encouraged students to make personal connections to themes like peer pressure and friends encouraging you to try new things, I did give students some guidelines at the beginning of the unit. When talking about personal experiences, whether they are yours or something that happened to a friend or family member, say “someone I know”. This prevents students from oversharing private things (“my X was in a gang”) or things that might lead others to be uncomfortable.

The meat of the unit was based on a book and a film that fit perfectly together. The book is Vida y Muerte en la Marasalvatrucha. Want more evidence that teaching about gangs is tough? The author of the book wanted to remain anonymous. The book is available from Fluency Matters and follows the story of a boy who grows up in the MS-13 and later finds redemption through tragedy. Regardless of my thoughts about using non-native resources (post on that coming soon), this book is a quick, easy read for heritage speakers and DLI students, but one that will keep them engaged.

Next we watched the movie Sin Nombre. It is one of my all-time favorites because it is brutally honest. It follows two characters, Casper, a member of the MS-13 in Mexico and Sayra, a young immigrant from Honduras, as their paths cross on the way to the United States. It is a hard movie to watch (and rated R so get parent permission first) but it connects perfectly with Vida y Muerte en la Marasalvatrucha and provides a great segue into our next unit about immigration.

This book and film are often taught in a Spanish 3 or 4 class, but heritage speakers are capable of much more than just reading comprehension, so their final assessment was to write an essay comparing the journey of the narrator from the book and Casper in the film. To do so we worked on making comparisons (great place to do some grammar work in context) by looking at the journey that the characters go through, evaluating whether their actions were good or bad. Here is an example of one of the charts a group made:

Prepping for the essay by plotting out the characters’ journey

As someone who is still struggling to make the switch from Spanish teacher to Spanish Language Arts teacher, I’m often at a loss for how to help students prep for essay writing. This activity seemed to be a great way to help my students scaffold what they wanted to say and get ready to dive in to some deep character analysis.

This unit with worksheets and teacher notes is available on my Teachers Pay Teachers store if you want to try it in your classroom. I would love to hear your comments. What tough issues do you teach about? What advice do you have for tackling a tough topic?

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