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Culver Academies teaches students not only languages, but world culture

Tom Coyne
Students in Spanish IV: Cuisine. taught by instructor Becky Padgett, make chimichurri. (Photo by Ken Voreis)

Aug. 25, 2023

Culver Academies takes a different approach when it comes to teaching foreign languages. The World Languages and Cultures program not only seeks to teach students to speak another language, it strives to foster a kind, respectful culture of global awareness and help students become better world citizens.

“Culver Academies changed our name from Modern and Classical Languages to World Languages and Cultures about eight years ago because we believe that language is not only learning a system of communicating, but it's also being empathetic and understanding and learning about other cultures. It was a very intentional decision,” said Cory Barnes, a master instructor of French and chairperson of the department.

Culver has 12 teachers in World Languages and Cultures and strives to develop global citizens who are able to communicate effectively with their roommates, classmates and others with whom they may engage, but also empathize with all cultures.

“We want to expose our students to the world,” Barnes said.

Every Culver student whose native language is English must take at least three years of a language, either Spanish, French, Mandarin or Latin. International students whose native language is not English are not required to take three years of a language, but many still do.

America trails much of the world when it comes to speaking a second language. A study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released in 2017 found that only 21 percent of Americans can speak a foreign language, while a majority of adults in Europe are bilingual or multilingual.

 When it comes to teaching language at Culver, instructors use a proficiency-oriented style, trying different methods, strategies and activities to help students learn in the way that works best for them.

“We believe in a blended approach using philosophies, pedagogies and methodologies from different arenas,” Barnes said.

Cory Barnes, World Language and Culture chairperson and master instructor, works with students in Language Honor Seminar, a class where students speak French, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin and Latin. (Photo by Tom Coyne)

Teachers accomplish that by putting students in an immersive environment and by using authentic sources, such as books, news outlets, videos or audio materials. Students are encouraged to read, whether it is out loud as part of a class-wide exercise or silently alone. By using authentic sources, students learn through subjects they are interested in, which keeps them motivated.

Games are another method used to teach language.

“The more that students are exposed to language that they can understand the more they’re going to be able to acquire that language and become communicative,” Barnes said.

Culver teachers strive to make students “proficient” in a language, which means they should be able to demonstrate a high degree of competence and skill in a language.

Barnes, who has been teaching at Culver for 31 years, said teachers at Culver are constantly researching and trying different methods. She recalls learning by rote, when the focus was on drilling the language into students. A teacher would call out rapid-fire questions, snap her fingers and point at a student who was expected to know the correct verb conjugation or direct object pronoun.

She said that way may work for some students, but educators are constantly finding new methods and Culver is always seeking to adopt the best practices.

“As we learn more about the ways in which people, all people, acquire language, it feels like using the best of each methodology is the way to go,” Barnes said. “We don’t want to be stagnant. It needs to be a dynamic program.”

Instead of spending all their time conjugating verbs and memorizing vocabulary lists, Culver students focus on speaking and writing the language. They are assessed on their ability to comprehend what they’ve heard or read and how well they can speak and write. Teachers assess the three modes of communication – interpretive, interpersonal and presentational.

“It is a better way to assess what they’ve learned,” Barnes said.


Instructor Anastasia Beeson '94 asks students to use French to describe the differences between two houses. (Photo by Tom Coyne)

Barnes said longevity is one of the keys to understanding another language, which is why she advocates taking four years of one language as opposed to two years of one language and then two years of another.

“That’s going to help your SAT or ACT scores go up because that is going to give you a firmer grounding in any language,” she said.

 Although many consider Latin a dying language, it is alive and well at Culver. Culver teaches Latin the same way it teaches other languages.

“You go into a Latin class and you’re going to see the same sorts of things you see in a French class or a Spanish class,” she said.

Testing done on students in the World Languages and Cultures program in the past year showed that Culver’s methods are working.

“The data showed us not only are most of our students achieving where we anticipated they would be, but in many cases are actually above the target level and we are above the national averages,” Barnes said. “It shows what we are doing is working.”


Alison Aylesworth '24 makes chimichurri during Spanish IV: Cuisine.  (Photo by Ken Voreis)

She said one area of focus Culver teachers have been discussing recently is the need to expand the cultures students study.

“So in French for example, that would not just be teaching about the culture of France, but also teaching about Martinique, Guadalupe, Quebec and other places,” Barnes said. “There are a lot of French-speaking places in the world. There are a lot of Spanish-speaking places in the world. We want to make sure we’re exposing our students to all of these voices and we’re amplifying Black and brown voices as well. That’s very important to us.”

Culver students also can take Advanced Placement classes and Honor Seminar opportunities where students can conduct in-depth research into some area of the target culture that interests them. They are required to write scholarly papers at least 15 pages long. About 30 Culver students a year take Advance Placement language classes, most of them in either Spanish or French.

Barnes said the hope is that by taking World Languages and Cultures, Culver students will have a better understanding of the world and are proficient in another language.

“They may not be able to form a subjunctive or a past subjunctive or an imperfect subjunctive, that’s perfectly OK,” she said. “As long as they can communicate, that’s what we’re hoping for.”


Instructor Becky Padgett listens in as students in her Advanced Spanish 2 class read aloud. (Photo by Tom Coyne)


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