To my previous post, Darcy Lear from UNC-Chapel Hill added a comment about some of her students' final projects for the Spanish service learning course she just finished teaching. Two words in particular struck me as very important for what we do in Spanish community-based learning: confidence and connections. We help students build confidence and make connections.
(When Darcy was here at UIUC she and I co-founded Spanish & Illinois. For more about Darcy click on the "about us" tab above; or see the Spanish for the Professions Minor that she directs at UNC.)
Confidence. We have all been second language learners ourselves and know how much confidence it takes to speak up in that language, knowing that you're probably going to make mistakes and possibly not even be understood. In the classroom we can create an environment in which mistakes are recast, we elaborate on a students' skeletal sentence and no one gets impatient while someone else momentarily struggles. In the real world, that's not what you get. "¿Qué?" "No te entiendo." Or the Spanish-speaker switches to English. Walks away. Hangs up. Ouch. But Darcy's students had to take risks when approaching unknown people, establish a connection with that person, think on their feet, recover from failure then make a report. Wouldn't that be an excellent story for one of these students to recount during their future job search? (Interviewer: "So, tell me about a time you made a mistake and what you did about it.") Isn't that what scientists do? Athletes? Isn't that what any successful person in any field does in the real world?
Connections. Yes, that is precisely what successful people do. But our students often think that they "just" did an assignment. This is just a Spanish class. Their learning deepens if we help them make connections between their experiences in the community and other contexts. Between their Spanish composition course and the flyer they produced for the community partner. Between that freshman diversity workshop they had to take and examples of discrimination they have seen in the community. Between their work in the community and their summer job as camp counselor, their study-abroad experiences, their family's own immigration stories, the career they hope to have in the future.
The challenge for us is to create curricular materials that help students make those connections, aid their language acquisition and foster their learning of cultures at the same time. That's a future post.