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The World in Other Words Interdisciplinary Spanish V with Andrea Villiagran

In a Campus Center classroom on a Wednesday morning, half a dozen students gathered, eager to discuss the performance they’d seen the night before: a play called Quixote Nuevo, a reinterpretation of Don Quixote staged by the noted Huntington Theatre Company. The piece dealt with complex themes of love and loss, and the students struggled a bit to find the words to describe their responses.

It might have been a challenge even in English—but the discussion took place in an Interdisciplinary Spanish V class, and that meant it was conducted entirely in Spanish. High-level Spanish conversation, reading, and writing is the order of the day in this course, the first year-long IDS class offered at Rivers. Students are improving their language skills as they tackle topics ranging from politics to economics to literature, viewed through the lens of fantasy.

Teacher Andrea Villagran explains what led her to create the wide-ranging course. A longtime fan of fantasy, Villagran says, “It’s about bringing things I’m passionate about together and using them to teach language. One of the essential questions we explore is what real and cultural experiences have led people to create fantasy worlds.” Such experiences might include political and social upheaval or economic challenges, and the course seeks to put fantasy in the context of the cultures that create it.

IDS classes build on the principle that integrating the study of two separate disciplines enables learning that could not be achieved through each discipline alone.

The exploration unfolds through many media. Villagran, a cinephile and polyglot who also teaches a class on French film, has the class watch Viaje a Marte (“Trip to Mars”), an animated Argentinian film, and the Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth. The students read works in Spanish ranging from essays by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano to Vladimir Propp’s seminal Morphology of the Folktale.

Villagran has taught the class before, but this is the first year it has been classified as an interdisciplinary studies class. IDS classes build on the principle that integrating the study of two separate disciplines enables learning that could not be achieved through each discipline alone. IDS classes ask students to integrate the insights, skills, and approaches of different subjects, both because of the intrinsic educational value in doing so and because the world increasingly demands graduates who can synthesize across multiple disciplines.

To move the course into the IDS category, says Villagran, “I added more meaningful connections to the content; we spend more time talking about government structures, politics, history, and society.” Those topics were always part of the class, but now they’ve been made more explicit and are examined in greater depth. When, for instance, the class analyzes Pan’s Labyrinth, which is set shortly after the Spanish Civil War, the discussion delves deeply into its historical context and the war’s broader repercussions.

The central focus of the course’s middle trimester is fairytales, and here the class studies the archetypes that underlie the form and the social conditions that created specific tales. They read the Charles Perrault version of “Little Red Riding Hood” (translated into Spanish, of course), and many students are taken aback to learn that, far from reaching a more familiar happy ending, the story concludes with the little girl being eaten by the wolf. It’s a parable about stranger danger, 17th-century style, that leads to “plenty of discussion opportunities,” says Villagran.

Then, for the major IDS project of the winter trimester, students write their own fairytales. Some take a page from Perrault and pen cautionary tales, while others follow the happily-ever-after script. But all are written in a Spanish that becomes increasingly fluent and confident as the year progresses.

Beyond the obvious acquisition of language skills, there’s a great benefit to studying high-level, complex subject matter in Spanish or any foreign tongue, says Villagran. “It’s the same kind of material they’d learn in another class, but doing it in Spanish forces them to see it from a different perspective,” she says. “If I read a news article in English, geared to Americans, and another article on the same subject in Spanish, geared to a Mexican audience, they may have the same content, but delivery is so different, and my takeaway will be so different.”

The ability to recognize and understand those differences in perspective is Villagran’s greatest hope for her students. “I want them to be able to think and analyze at a higher level, using the skills they’ve been acquiring for so long,” she says.

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Photos by John Hurley