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La familia assists Spanish learners

A male student on the left has a Zoom call with a woman on the right.
Dominic Pianto '23 chats with Professor Lozano-Alonso's niece in Mexico, Berenice Alonso y Sosa.

Adaptability, creativity and resilience are hallmarks of a semester upended by a pandemic, and nowhere are those traits more evident than in Spanish 215, a conversation and composition class taught by Angélica Lozano-Alonso, professor of Spanish and Furman’s Spanish Language Coordinator.

When COVID-19 made lemons out of Lozano-Alonso’s plans, she regrouped and made memorable lemonade for her students and her family in Mexico.

Screenshot of a male student on a Zoom call with a woman in Mexico.
James LaLonde ’23, at home in Baton Rouge, practices Spanish with Michele Polit in Mexico.

The class relies heavily on student conversation, and it is kept purposely small – just 10 students this semester – so participants really engage in meaningful interactions.

“I’ve been teaching it for many years, and I love to teach it because I get to know the students really well, but it requires us meeting,” said Lozano-Alonso, who is also the faculty director of Furman Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “We think of it as comparable to a lab in the sciences. It has to be hands-on.”

When COVID-19 hit South Carolina, it resulted in a quick change to remote learning for students and faculty. Lozano-Alonso admits that she was worried about how this would change the dynamic of a class that relies on personal contact, but like any good educator in changing circumstances, she figured out a new way to teach.

“I have five nieces and nephews in Mexico who are college age and I have 10 students in the class,” she said. “My nieces and nephews were also going to work from home for their school. I thought they could be conversation partners. We have this unique opportunity where people are stuck at home and this could break the monotony.”

It worked beautifully and added a richness to the class that would not have been possible otherwise. Lozano-Alonso paired her nieces and nephews with students with whom they had something in common. She then let her students take the leap to figuring out how to make it all work with texts and video calls.

“I just gave them a phone number,” she said. “They texted the person and coordinated the interview and did it.”

The contact was spread over three units. First, Furman students interviewed Lozano-Alonso’s nieces and nephews about college life in Mexico and how the virus has impacted their experience. Next, Lozano-Alonso recruited family members of all ages and had her students talk to them about the pandemic’s impact.

“My mom is in Mexico right now, and I paired her with one of my students,” Lozano-Alonso said. “My mom is a retired high school Spanish teacher, so it was right out of her bag of tricks.”

The final unit would normally involve students writing a letter as part of applying for an imaginary job in a Spanish-language country, but the connection to Lozano-Alonso’s family offered a unique opportunity. She had her older relatives conduct mock job interviews with the students.

David Polit, one of Lozano-Alonso’s nephews, said the experience was equally valuable for him.

“I’ve never been to South Carolina,” he said. “It was really helpful for me. Here in Mexico, I don’t really get to practice my English. I never knew the college life of students in the United States. It was nice to see their point of view from there. I could see the big picture.”

Molecular biology major James Lalonde ’23 is back home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but this experience made a profound impact on him. He credits Lozano-Alonso with challenging her students.

“Her enthusiasm and passion – she makes these outside activities that really help you engage in the language,” he said. “It has allowed me to practice all my skills. It’s kind of terrifying at first because you have no idea what to expect. I thought I wouldn’t gain as much through Zoom classes, but I feel like I’ve learned more and gained more proficiency during this time.”

Katherine McCann ’23 at home in Greenville chats with Michele Polit Soria in Mexico.

Katherine McCann ’23, a Greenville student with a double major in biology and Spanish, agreed.

“I was really worried,” she said. “It’s much harder if you can’t be there and interact with your professor and classmates. I have been so excited by the results of this and the opportunity to talk with members of her family. I think there are things we have lost, but it has been made up for through this experience.”

Lozano-Alonso’s niece, Ana Karen Polit Tavera, is from Mexico but is studying in Spain this semester. She said what began with nerves quickly transitioned to an everyday conversation between peers.

“I love meeting new people and now that I have plenty of free time, I had the chance to change my routine and meet new friends,” she said via email. “I was also shocked when I had the chance to ask one of the girls the same questions about her because I found out we have a lot in common. It’s funny and interesting to know that even in another country and a different culture you can be really similar to someone.”

Lozano-Alonso said it is unlikely that her family will have as much time to participate with future classes once social distancing has ended, but she hopes to continue using technology to connect her students with language learners in other countries. The biggest takeaway may extend beyond language proficiency to making the world a bit smaller for all.

McCann said hearing Lozano-Alonso’s mother’s concerns about the impact of the pandemic hit home.

“It gave me a much different perspective and encouraged me to do my part locally even,” she said.

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