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Spanish Course Unites Heritage Speakers

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University of Denver

Groundbreaking Class Creates Curriculum on Heritage

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Spanish heritage class

Nicky Gallegos and Alejandro Reynoso both grew up in the greater Denver area. Both have family members who speak Spanish. Both have also stepped forward to improve their Spanish skills at the University of Denver.

Despite these similarities, their personal stories of learning English and Spanish are quite different. Gallegos, a first-year student who graduated from North High School, spoke English as his first language and has learned Spanish in school to connect more with his culture. Reynoso, a transfer student, spoke Spanish as his first language but also learned English while growing up in southwest Denver.

Teaching Assistant Professor Lina Reznicek-Parrado has created a groundbreaking class that manages to engage both students — and 13 others with varying Spanish backgrounds — by creating a curriculum around what unites them: heritage.

In winter quarter, within her first year at DU's Department of Languages and Literatures, Reznicek-Parrado led a unique group of 15 students in her new course, "Spanish for Heritage Speakers." The course specifically caters to students who were educated in the context of English-speaking America but have other experience with Spanish through family, community, school, or other sources. It's the first language class for heritage speakers to be offered at DU.

Unlike other Spanish classes that might focus on vocabulary or grammar, Reznicek-Parrado's class is tailored to the abilities of her students and the topics that are relevant to their lives.

"I was looking for another Spanish class to take for my minor, and then I saw this was specifically for heritage speakers like myself," says junior Crystal Mancilla, who grew up learning both English and Spanish in Illinois. "I thought that was really interesting because you're not just learning the usual grammar [and] Spanish from Spain, like in other Spanish classes. This is more directed towards us who already speak Spanish, but differently."

Reznicek-Parrado says she hopes the class demonstrates to DU's population of Spanish heritage speakers that their presence and their unique perspectives are valued. Part of that mission involves challenging students' assumptions, such as the idea that mixing Spanish and English is incorrect and inappropriate.

"We're told by our families who speak Spanish that speaking 'Spanglish' is very informal and it's not professional," Mancilla says. "But from this perspective in this class, 'Spanglish' isn't informal or formal, it's just a way of speaking and shouldn't have a negative connotation."

Besides the discussion of "Spanglish," students learn about the words "Latino" and "Hispanic" as they relate to identity. They also learn and talk about the issue of immigration and its importance among Spanish speakers.

Spanish Heritage Course

"I have seen several students be amazed at how a class can actually revolve around them and their experiences and knowledge of the U.S. Latinx experience," Reznicek-Parrado said. "I think when the core [of the class] relates so much to your own experience, that has a very positive impact on your academic trajectory."

Although the class is discussion-based, students complete three main writing assignments in Spanish throughout the quarter. Each assignment is creative and evidence-based in nature, such as writing a proposal to a specific audience (a politician, for example) about how to address the issue of undocumented immigration. For these projects, Reznicek-Parrado set up a partnership with DU's Center for World Languages and Cultures as well as the Writing Center to have her students meet with Spanish-speaking language and writing consultants.

She says about half of the students in her current course are planning to take her follow-up course, "Spanish for Heritage Speakers II," in fall quarter of 2019. Gallegos and Reynoso plan to be among that group.

"The people who are in the class, we're in the same boat, so we have that connection," Reynoso says. "We can share each other's experiences and the topics, where [at] another place, we can't do that."

Reznicek-Parrado plans to offer Spanish for Heritage Speakers next in winter quarter of 2020, and at some point in each following academic year.