Saturday, July 11, 2009

Five Reasons to Love Teaching Spanish Community Service Learning

by Ann Abbott

1. You have extra time. The way things are set up at the University of Illinois, our Spanish community service learning (CSL) classes meet with the instructor just two hours a week. That certainly doesn't mean the CSL instructors work less, but it does mean that you can have some extra non-classroom time each week to communicate with community partners and students, plan your classes and grade the reflections.

2. You feel inspired. I don't know about you, but after so many years teaching Spanish, sometimes it is hard for me to muster the same enthusiasm I used to have for discussions about "¿Qué hiciste durante el fin de semana?" or oral presentations on Picasso, El Alhambra and paella. Instead, with Spanish CSL you know that your students need you so that they don't fail in the community and that community members need your students to succeed. That may sound like a lot of pressure, but knowing that my teaching actually has an impact in the community makes me want to rise to the challenge.

3. You can collaborate. CSL courses are collaborative in so many ways.
  • With community partners. They know what the community needs are and you know what your students are capable of doing with their language skills. Together you find the best ways for your students to help and learn more Spanish at the same time. And you may have the title of "Instructor" during the course, but your community partner and the community members will be doing a lot of the teaching for you.
  • With students. If, like me, you aren't out in the community working alongside your students, they will come to class with stories, information and questions that you could have never anticipated. They will teach you many things! And one of the most valuable things they will teach you is what you're not teaching them. Let me explain: Even though you may be a prize-winning, by-the-latest-research instructor, most of what you know about teaching doesn't really help you teach your students to work in an under-resourced organization in a community that has many recent immigrants. Your students' questions (and, yes, even complaints) will tell you what they need to learn in the classroom so they can succeed outside of it.
  • With CSL practitioners everywhere. My hope is that Spanish CSL instructors and students will look to this blog for information and conversation. But there are also all kinds of CSL conversations taking place on your campus and on-line. Darcy Lear has APPLES at the University of North Carolina as a resource for information and connections with other CSL faculty on campus. I look to Valeri Werpetinski from our Center for Teaching Excellence for great, challenging dialogue about CSL. Look for @NSLC on Twitter: you'll get great info, and if you search through who she (?) is following and who is following her, you'll find all kinds of people who do CSL. And in another post I'll list the great websites I have found for resources and dialogue of all kinds.

4. You receive valuable feedback. What feedback do you get in your regular courses? Hopefully your students take the time to give you careful, considered feedback on your end-of-the-semester evaluations, but in my experience the majority of bubble-filled sheets come back with little actionable information. I once got, "Me gustan tus zapatos" on the back of my evaluation sheet. (That was back when I wore stylish shoes instead of Mom shoes...) And if you have been visited by your colleagues, many of them are looking at your approach to grammatical accuracy and textual analysis skills. But with Spanish CSL students will flat out tell you what works and what doesn't. Your community members will call you and let you know if your students' Spanish isn't up to par. Valuable feedback isn't always positive feedback. You make it valuable when you act upon it.

5. You can be creative. Spanish has some really good textbooks already available. Yes, you can spice them up with your own activities, but mostly they require your creativity in terms of delivery instead of content. Spanish CSL is so new that you can really invent your course and your lessons. You don't have to travel abroad to bring bring in realia; you can get it from the community. You can put your creativity to work on lessons that derive from real-world needs. My hope is that Comunidades will give instructors a good base of lessons and materials to work with in their course, but since each community is unique, they can also apply their creativity to making materials that apply to their specific locale.

Bonus: You remember why you loved Spanish in the first place. If you're a non-native speaker like me, you can still remember being on the other side of the desk. I loved Spanish because it opened up new worlds to me. Before I ever travelled to a Spanish-speaking country, I sought out people from those countries (and any other country outside the US) just because I loved meeting people from other countries and learning about the world. I loved the sounds of the Spanish language. And the more I learned about the world, the more I became concerned about issues of international politics and social justice both here and abroad. That's what I loved about Spanish from the very beginning. But the further I went with Spanish in the university, the narrower it became in my life. It was all about literature. And for many of my colleagues, it was all about linguistics. Spanish CSL allowed me to return to my "Spanish roots."

Tell me what YOU love about teaching Spanish CSL!

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