Cultivating Learning, Language and Health: An Interview with Erin Bolivar

Erin Bolivar with Horse

For this month’s Spotlight, I sat down to talk with Professor Erin Bolivar, from the Department of Languages, Cultures and Literatures.  She has been at USD for an amazing 21 years, teaching any of the first four semesters of Spanish, depending on the semester. This semester she is teaching Spanish 102.

Erin was nominated by her department colleague, Christiane Staninger, who highlighted Erin’s creative and engaging teaching, which combines language education with a health-focused twist. I asked Erin to share with me what Christiane had emphasized and as our discussion began, she lit up allowing me to see her passion not only for teaching but the students in her classes.

Her innovation originated when she noticed how many students who are away from home for the first time, with increased responsibility for managing their own affairs, fail to focus attention on their own health and well-being. To help address this extracurricular concern while still teaching them Spanish, Erin devised a program of assignments, spanning many different lessons, to help students take time to appreciate the need for planning strategies aimed at taking care of their own physical and emotional health.

Specifically, she mentioned that there are chapters where the students cover topics like “food” and “the doctor’s office” and during such lessons, students learn not only new vocabulary but also syntactic elements, such as making comparisons. Because the different chapters and topics can sometimes feel disconnected, Erin weaves them together with a common theme of health.

For example, she mentioned that traditionally, the focus of the doctor’s office chapter would be using the vocabulary for interacting with a doctor, but she shifts the focus to talking about ways to stay healthy. This dovetails nicely with the chapter on food, where students learn terms for both fresh produce and those items that would come from the supermarket. Erin attempts to focus students on the differences in nutrition between these food items, how they might impact one’s health and therefore, potentially affect the need to visit with a doctor.

Another technique that Erin employs is project-based learning, for example having students create their own “gardens” out of paper. From a pedagogical perspective, this helps connect the material more explicitly with their own everyday experiences (e.g., shopping at the market, visiting the doctor) and creates a visual, creative assignment to help process the material more deeply. Furthermore, students are practicing their new vocabulary, connecting ideas between chapters and implementing linguistic techniques all at the same time: If eating apples (vocab) is healthier (comparison) than eating a burger (vocab), it should make me less likely (comparison) to need to visit the doctor (vocab).  By focusing the material collectively on the theme of health, students are also getting practice with connecting their own eating choices to health outcomes.  Connections are also made in the section on home-based remedies, where Erin encourages students to share about their own or family members’ home remedies for various maladies. Such techniques are not only wonderfully effective for promoting learning but also foster reflection on different aspects of self-care. 

In addition to the focus on physical health, Erin also explicitly incorporates attention on mental and emotional well-being in her class.  For example, in introducing students to negative descriptors in Spanish, such as words like “nothing” and “no one”, she has students read a passage that discusses positive and negative thoughts.  They are then asked some questions to reflect on the reading, including questions about what they do to maintain balance, the connection between falling out of emotional balance and outcomes such as stress and illness, and what steps they can take if they notice they are feeling overwhelmed.  Erin often sees students getting excited as they start to use their Spanish lessons to develop a mindset of self-efficacy and perceive that they have control to foster personal well-being.  She even encourages students to close this activity by writing some positive affirmations for themselves (in Spanish of course!) to put on a post-it on their mirror or desk as reminders to take their self-care seriously and incorporate it in daily life.

Finally, a bit about the professor outside the classroom…who finds herself back in the classroom. :)  Erin is challenging herself to learn a new language.  She is sitting in on German courses here at USD and feels that being back in the student role fosters a perspective that has helped her teaching.  Many of us were inspired to teach because of individual instructors we encountered as students and Erin similarly identified a graduate school professor whose charisma in lecturing made Erin think, “I can do this!” Returning to the student role has refreshed her empathy for the students’ experience of learning, particularly learning a new language.  She highlighted for example the challenges of figuring out how to help yourself overcome a difficult topic and determining what study techniques do and do not work.

Erin also noted that by taking Dr. Staninger’s course, she is able to share with her colleague feedback on her lessons, assignments and exams from the student perspective.  Watching the techniques of her colleague also helps Erin to bring a fresh perspective to her own classes.  She offered that the situation “benefits us both like how the petals of a flower bloom.”

In sum, Erin’s work and involvement here at USD cultivate a focus on self-development and she is a representative example of someone who lives out the positive values she fosters in our students!


Center For Educational Excellence
(619) 260-7402