The Intersection of Muralist Movements and Two L2 Classes
The Philadelphia Mural Movement is internationally known; admittedly, it is one of its most sought attractions when visiting the city. Using this form of art as the backdrop, a telecollaborative task-based project between two universities located in two different countries, in two different continents, was designed in fall 2015. Universidad Católica (UC) in Santiago, Chile, and Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, share a similar art form on their city’s walls: murals. Both movements relate to cultural, social, and political trends in their respective city and country. Selecting this as the overarching theme, this telecollaboration, part of two traditional intermediate world language classes’ curricula, was created with two goals: 1) to develop the intercultural communicative competence of students of a second language (L2), and 2) to prepare Chilean students who will study abroad in Philadelphia the following academic term. This current essay includes three sections. The first sets up for the project represented here, briefly describing the mural movements, on the one hand, and placing this project within telecollaborative projects, on the other. The second concisely presents its design, and its evolution. Finally, the essay turns to outcomes drawing on a qualitative analysis of an individual written survey and group debriefing sessions.
The muralist movements in these two cities started twenty-five years apart with similar beginnings in working class neighborhoods, the participation of graffiti artists, and their desire to portray their citizens’ socio-political concerns. In Philadelphia, the artist Jane Golden invited graffiti artists to create public art on working class neighborhoods in 1984 which was the birth of Mural Arts Philadelphia. In the Southern Cone, in San Miguel, a neighborhood in Santiago, Chile, two local residents David Villarroel and Roberto Hernández convened not only graffiti artists, as Golden did, but muralists to paint on their neighborhood walls in 2009 which gave origin to Museo a Cielo Abierto. Both movements collaborate with their communities to create art that empowers them portraying issues dealing with social justice, racism, poverty, workers’ rights, migration, etc. Community members participate on the projects giving suggestions on mural themes, being models for them, or painting under the artist’s guidance. These artistic manifestations have also economically revitalized these neighborhoods and become tourist attractions for locals and non-locals. For this telecollaboration, a well-known muralist in Philadelphia, Cesar Viveros, recorded a lecture on the mural movement in the city and his art as an introduction to the project’s theme. It was uploaded to Drexel’s learning management system (LMS) to be watched by participant students.
This telecollaborative project was created under the umbrella of Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) that consists of “online and hybrid courses . . . where faculty from two or more cultures work together to develop a shared syllabus for the purpose of implementing an internationalized classroom emphasizing experiential and collaborative student learning.” (Rubin 2016: 263) At Drexel University, this collaboration is denominated as a “global classroom.” As noted previously, the global classroom consists of two traditional intermediate world language classes, one at Drexel and one at UC, where students of Spanish in Philadelphia and students of English in Santiago work using Asynchronous (ACMC) and Synchronous Computer Mediated [End Page 15] Communication (SCMC) technologies to facilitate developing their intercultural communicative competence and to prepare Chileans for their study abroad experience in the United States.
Before describing the global classroom, it is necessary to define intercultural communicative competence as the speaker’s ability to operate in cultural contexts that allows one to appreciate and adapt to the cultural differences of the other. The aim is that students of a world language see the other’s culture as a variation of their own, not as a divider. It is also worth noting that the intercultural communicative competence involves the acquisition of linguistic as well as cultural competences. The duration of the global classroom was modified to accommodate UC’s need to evaluate their students and determine who would study abroad in Philadelphia the following term; it lasted six weeks in 2015, five weeks in 2016, and finally was set to run for four weeks in 2017.
Weekly topics are discussed via asynchronous and synchronous communications. They evolve from very local themes, which deal with everyday life on campus and the city, to broader issues that permeate their countries. In 2015, the topics exclusively related to Philadelphia and Santiago, for example, what to do, where to go, local political issues, and local artistic expressions (painting, music, etc.). Starting in 2016, the topics aimed to encompass their country and sought to engage students to present their culture from their own perspective, for example, “my music,” “sports and fans,” “emblematic photographs in your country,” “how you interact with art in general” and “how you participate in current issues in your society.” Students are assigned short online articles in their L2 about their partners’ city and its muralist movement (e.g., students from UC read about Philadelphia in English while Americans read about Santiago in Spanish). These readings seek to provide background knowledge of the target language culture and stimulate students’ interactions. Students also contribute with readings whenever they wish to expand on an issue that is being discussed.
Forty students, twenty from each institution, are grouped into small groups of four, two Drexel students and two UC students, to explore the previously described topics. Each week they participate in asynchronous and synchronous activities using Drexel’s LMS, WhatsApp, and Zoom; they alternate the language use weekly (i.e., one week, Spanish, the following, English, etc.) The asynchronous communication is a dialogue journal of three exchanges that is done as a wiki on Bb Learn. It starts with a student offering his or her opinion on the weekly topic; this student finishes his or her posting with a question on the same topic which prompts a response from one of his or her peers; participants from the same university cannot answer questions left by their classmates of the same school. The aim is to lead to mutual understanding of others’ viewpoints and culture. It also resembles an informal conversation between native speakers with nonnative speakers (NS/NNS) with opinions and questions that change the interaction.
Three synchronous activities are carried out on three different platforms: WhatsApp, Blackboard Collaborate (currently Blackboard Collaborate Ultra), and Zoom. On the first one, students introduce themselves in pairs, one from each country, and make arrangements to meet on Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. This application is continuously used during and after the term; during the term, students send links and reminders to do the assigned work or share impromptu information with their peers once they are acquainted with them. After the end of the term, they sometimes continue communicating with their peers abroad to share their everyday life and experiences. On Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, a thirty-minute conversation between the already formed small groups of four students, two from each institution, is recorded; this interaction comprises of a twenty-five-minute conversation and a five minute feedback on their peers’ linguistic performance. It should be noted that students usually exceed the required amount of time of conversation; they sometimes talk for more than an hour, especially when an engaging socio-political event is taking place on their campus or in their city at the time [End Page 16] of their interaction. For instance, when there is a protest walking by the streets of Santiago or Philadelphia, students take the camera or laptop to the window to show what is happening to their peers abroad. They also use the chat feature of the app to clarify, paraphrase, or send links that might contribute to a better understanding of the events they witness.
The last synchronous activity, on Zoom, consists of three different videoconferences called plenary sessions when all forty students meet to formally introduce each other, and to do power point presentations on a mural of their choice. At the first plenary session, the groups of four already described, two students from each institution, introduce themselves in their L2 the first week of the global classroom; UC students speak in English and Drexel students in Spanish. At the next two videoconferences, five groups of four participants in each institution are formed to present, using their L2, a mural in their city to their peers abroad during weeks three and four. Students select the mural that is presented. Doing this, students claim ownership of the activity; they base the presentation on research done on the motif displayed on the piece. They also justify their selection stating their personal opinion and perspective. On week three, UC students socially and politically contextualize murals in Santiago for American students who do the same with murals in Philadelphia. Each presentation is followed by a question-answer period when students also use their L2 (i.e., Drexel students do their power point in Spanish while UC participants ask questions in English to be answered in Spanish). UC does mural presentations on week three due to their need to grade their students as part of the selection criteria to determine the participants who travel to Philadelphia in January. Drexel mural presentations conclude the telecollaboration on week four following the previously described format. Participant students do not work together until UC students go to Philadelphia at the beginning of the following year.
In winter term, twelve students from UC take English classes at Drexel University for six weeks. Throughout that time, once a week, a subsequent Intermediate Spanish class at Drexel is required to interact with UC students in dyads or triads for a minimum of one hour speaking in English and in Spanish respectively for thirty minutes. This is called on-campus global classroom. Forming dyads or triads depends on the number of students enrolled in the Spanish class. Generally, some triads have two American students and one UC student. During these six weeks, no specific topic to discuss is assigned. Instead, Americans are charged to take Chileans to visit Philadelphia and the murals that they presented the previous term; show their university campus; invite them to one of their classes in English; and, if available, participate in outings that the English Language Center organizes in and outside the city. At the end of week six, the project concludes with a debriefing session open to Drexel community where participants evaluate the telecollaboration and the on-campus global classroom.
The online global classroom has yielded positive outcomes for students’ development of intercultural communicative competence and their preparation to study abroad as well as for the participant institutions that have benefited in terms of prestige and enrollments. The development of intercultural communicative competence can be corroborated in the responses to the surveys that Drexel students complete at the end of the online global classroom as well as the debriefing session that takes place concluding the on-campus global classroom when the Chilean and US participants express their opinion of the program. Most students acknowledge that, “I learned a lot from Chile in my conversations with Chileans, mainly that our cultures are similar and different.” They also report the need to overcome stereotypes that one might have about their counterparts, “I had never realized how many stereotypes existed between the two cultures . . . by talking to them I was able to get a stronger perspective of who these people are as actual people.” When referring to stereotypes, they unanimously agree that those should be destroyed stating that this type of collaboration helps to destroy them building bridges of understanding among cultures and peoples. Considering their commonalities, students go beyond what Helm (2016) calls safe and superficial classroom topics like “university life, family, pastimes, festivities, [End Page 17] sports and music,” (151) sharing concern and engaging in uncomfortable and sometimes painful themes like cost of tertiary education, undocumented immigration, racial discrimination, gender inequality, global warming, and social inequality, as can be attested in the following excerpt taken from one of the surveys:
In Chile there are many immigrants, like in the United States. As in the United States, many immigrants help to form the national culture with their traditions. But there are groups that only come for work, and as in here, sometimes they do it illegally. We both appreciate immigrants, but they want them to come legally because illegal immigration is not fair to these workers. The citizens of Chile also take great care of the environment. . . . Citizens fought against a large dam project that would have damaged their environment, a protest that shows the spirit and dedication of their people. The people of the United States also appreciate and fight for the environment. . . . For example, residents of Philadelphia and all parts of the country are supporting the Sioux Tribe that is in danger from a pipe in North Dakota. These protests show that the two cultures focus on the preservation of our countries, even if it results in economic losses.
Regarding goal two of the global classroom—to prepare UC students who will study abroad in Philadelphia—Chileans do not seem to suffer a culture shock when they come to study at Drexel. By the time they are in the city, they are familiar with the US lifestyle. They can experience the city firsthand; they visit familiar places that they already saw online. They can also attend their American classmates’ classes which gives them a glimpse into that experience. Thus, they are not isolated from the general student community taking language classes with other international students at the English Language Center, but trying to integrate to every day-to-day university life at Drexel University. In connection with how the institutions have benefited with this project, the global classroom is a highly sought program that receives a multitude of applications in UC. Universidad Católica has been nationally recognized for this telecollaboration. At Drexel, the global classroom is popular among students and has generated an increase of enrollments in the Spanish Minor as well as in the number of students who study abroad in UC.
This type of telecollaboration responds to the call for action that the Commission on Language Learning put forward in 2017 regarding “[promoting] opportunities for students to learn languages in other countries by experiencing other cultures and immersing themselves in multilingual environments” (x). Additionally, it addresses what Kinginger (2009) and O’Dowd (2016) have brought to the forefront as the potential benefit that online collaborations have in supporting physical mobility. This project helps to develop empathy and understanding of the L2 culture; UC as well as American students gain an appreciation of the other’s social and cultural practices which ease their transition when they study abroad. As previously stated, the number of Drexel participants studying in UC has increased; Universidad Católica has created a buzz among students of Spanish on the Drexel campus.
Despite being a small project, the global classroom and the on-campus global clssroom have yielded encouraging and positive outcomes that can be observed among local and international participants throughout these four years of implementation. It seems that learning about another culture through art and everyday life, that walking the streets and admiring murals on the walls of these two cities, Santiago and Philadelphia, being thousands of miles apart, can bring students closer in their understanding and appreciation of the other to the point that it stops being a different person, but a variation of oneself. [End Page 18]