“I was in the market and I was looking around, and that made me a little bit hungry,” said fourth-grader JT. “So I was just looking around to see if I could find something. And I actually said out loud, ‘Do you have any cucumbers in this market?’”

JT is a student in Milena Blanco’s fourth-grade Spanish class at Carolina Day School. What he is describing is the very authentic feeling of visiting Havana, Cuba using virtual reality glasses, a new activity introduced into the fourth-grade Spanish classroom. The aim? To create a more immersive experience for the students.

“When learning a new language, it is relevant to feel that it has a purpose,” said Blanco. “This virtual reality tool is an opportunity to get immersed in different cultures, to listen to the language spoken in its real context, and to wonder about many issues that will be solved only by using the new language. It is ultimately a very authentic way to be in touch with other cultures and to open the scholar’s mind to the world.”

Ian Riddell, STEM coordinator for the CDS Lower School, and Blanco collaborated on ways to utilize technology in the classroom to bring an authentic experience to students. Blanco was born in Cuba, and they decided to use Cuba as a lens to bring students a flavor of the culture around Spanish language. Google Cardboard Virtual Reality Viewers and a VR movie that takes the viewer through the streets of Havana, Cuba, helped to provide that lens.

The four-and-a-half-minute movie focuses on the pedestrian travels of two children as they run errands through the streets of the city. The children stop at a band playing in the street and dance. They buy groceries. The experience feels authentic to many of the CDS fourth-grade participants, like JT. In discussions afterward, they talk about what “authenticity” means when using VR. Questions come up such as, “Who was really interacting with these individuals?” and “Did it feel realistic?” The room is alive with excitement. Many wish the experience could last longer.

“In introducing this technology to the classroom, we are being thoughtful and intentional in how we introduce it,” said Riddell. The experience is always prefaced with discussion about the use of the technology—the need for physical safety while VR is being used (care is taken to limit the groups to no more than five students at a time, and instructions are given so students don’t fall or bump into one another). When they are done, the class debriefs about the positives and negatives of VR. Ethical uses of technology are always at the forefront of classroom conversation.

Riddell and Blanco are excited by this new activity and its potential to enrich the Spanish curriculum, as well as other areas of study, such as history and social studies.

“This unit’s essential question is: Why do you think it is important to learn another language and culture?” said Blanco. “I believe this realistic experience will contribute to each student’s ability to find an answer to this question.”

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