Class Shortens Distances

Portuguese Language Course Builds Community

By Rebecca Politzer

Portuguese class in zoom

Cassia leads Portuguese language class with guest Isabella Bretz.

Cassia De Abreu wanted to teach her intermediate Portuguese-language class about the cultural connections and the diversity across Portuguese-speaking countries, build a language community, and bring the real world into her classroom.

When creating the curriculum for Intermediate Portuguese I (PORT 203), De Abreu found the music of Isabella Bretz and her album, “Canções Para Abreviar Distâncias,” or “Songs to Shorten Distances.” Bretz’s album, where Bretz sets the poems of living Portuguese-speaking authors to music, seemed perfect for De Abreu’s students.

Teaching this particular language course involves accommodating students at a variety of levels. “It’s a gateway course,” said De Abreu, “We get students from other institutions” as well as students who are Spanish speakers and students who started learning Portuguese at SDSU. De Abreu wanted a class that “would be challenging to [the students] as language learners, but also interesting in terms of culture and music.”

“The way Cassia set up her class makes it so much more interesting, especially in an online environment, because we get to talk to a lot of different native speakers. We talk about culture every single day in the class,” said student Brooke Schumacher (’23).

Additionally, De Abreu noted, “The music — there’s not one student that would tell me, ‘I don’t like music.’”

For their large project, De Abreu had students analyze eight poems from Bretz’s album — eight different authors from eight Portuguese-speaking countries. The students researched the poets as well as the historical, cultural, and political context of the poems, read and discussed additional poems by the author that they chose, and created blog posts about the authors. Both Bretz, through the creation of her album, and De Abreu shared a common goal, they “really wanted these poets who are recognized in their own countries to get recognition while they are living,” said De Abreu.

Nashla Duck (’23) said, “You’re not just learning Portuguese, you’re learning so many different aspects of the culture. You’re getting all of the necessary information to be fluent in the language: regions, culture, books, music.”

Since De Abreu’s class was a language class, she devised a way to have online discussions about these authors and their backgrounds. De Abreu utilized a software program to enable students to record and review video discussion board posts.

“We first analyzed the poem. And, then we watched Bretz’s rendition of the poem where she added music and a painting to represent the poem. Each one was a very different historical and cultural reference,” said Schumacher.

“It was so fun,” said Duck, “You get this perspective of the person who created the poem.”

But De Abreu went even further — De Abreu invited Isabella Bretz to join her class. The students had a chance to interview Bretz, and ask her questions about the album.

Schumacher stated, “The interview was really interesting. We talked about her process — why she chose the artists that she chose, why she felt compelled even to do this project, and about her time in Brazil versus living in Portugal. It was a really cool interview.”

Evelyne Muñoz (’21), was very impressed that Bretz would be a part of their class. “To take her time to share her experiences and her work with us. It was really interesting to intertwine that work with our work. It seemed a bit incredible to experience that.”

“Bringing the real world into the classroom has made a huge difference and had a positive impact on the students’ learning experience,” said De Abreu.

“You’re not just learning it from a book — you’re actually experiencing it,” said Duck.

De Abreu is passionate about teaching the Portuguese language. She said that, while Portuguese is “less commonly taught, it’s the fifth most spoken language globally, and, it’s a language that’s growing in importance worldwide.” It is even recognized on UNESCO’s International Day of the Portuguese Language, May 5. On this day, De Abreu will host an event featuring the Ambassador of Brazil to Los Angeles, the Consulate of Portugal in San Francisco, singer Isabella Bretz, and students reciting Portuguese language poems.

“What Cassia did last semester and what she’s continuing to do this semester is to really think- outside-of-the-box and make the class as immersive as possible so that not only are we motivated to learn but we’re going to learn things that are very important that a textbook might not teach us,” said Schumacher.

Open University student Renee Kilmer said, “We learn the language for utilitarian purposes, but also through the works of this musician, we learn the power of language and the beauty of language and how differently it’s used and spoken around the world. Cassia’s ability to really bring the entire Lusophone world into one class in a semester using a variety of means — the music is a touchstone — provides fuel for students.”

De Abreu expressed the importance of thinking globally. “To quote Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb poem — there was one line in the poem that stayed with me: ‘Never again sow division,’ I’m always working to bring people together — to build community,” she said.  “‘We are stronger together’ is really intertwined in all of these ideas I want people to see. Our language connects us all, and language is the route to your heart.”