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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Lose the Atlas Complex and Embrace Spanish Community Service Learning

Community service learning educators can share the load.
by Ann Abbott

I'm not going to lie: building, expanding and maintaining a Spanish community service learning program is not easy. 


But it's doable. I did it. Others have done it. 


Many people I meet, though, while genuinely interested in this pedagogy, stop short of actually putting the pieces together. Of getting started.


The Atlas Complex, I've now come to realize, is at least part of the reason people are afraid to take the final step and get the CSL course going.

The Atlas Complex is the belief that many educators have that they, like Atlas, have to carry the entire weight of students' learning on their shoulders. Finkel & Monk explain it very clearly with examples in "Teachers and Learning Groups: Dissolution of the Atlas Complex." Jim Lee and Bill VanPatten start the very first chapter of Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen with an explanation of the Atlas Complex. It's that important. And insidious. Unconscious.

Here are some questions I have received, how they reveal the Atlas Complex, and how we can share the responsibilities of CSL among all parties.

How can you know that students are actually showing up at the community partner organization and doing their work?

Atlas Complex. 

We assume that without our presence, things cannot function and that students will not do what they are supposed to do. (This begs the question, do we think that we are actually controlling students' behaviors when we are present?)

CSL Solution. 

Yes, we need to make sure that students actually put in the hours with the community partner organization. And your community partner is just that: your partner. Your community partner needs a sign-in and authorization system that gets reported back to you at pre-determined moments in the semester.

I don't know enough about [immigration reform] to be able to teach a class like yours. How did you learn all of that?

Atlas Complex

We assume that we have to be the knowledge experts and transfer our knowledge to the students. In my case, it's usually about immigration. But whatever subject you teach, engaging with the community will lead you into at least some unfamiliar territory.

CSL Solutions. 

Community Partners. Again, our community partners should be our true partners. So ask them what the issues are. Ask them to guest lecture. Ask them at the middle of the semester to identify some key information/skills/approaches that your students are missing. 
Students. But then don't assume that you have to turn around and immediately become the expert on all of the information your community partners shared. Hand those issues off to your students as research projects. Spend class time letting them research and present their findings. For the final exam ask them to produce an annotated reading list for next semester's students.
Resources. Don't assume you have to build all of this on your own. Read this blog for lesson plan ideas, students perspectives and other resources. Have your students use my textbook, Comunidades: Más allá del aula, as the basis of your CSL curriculum. After all, the information in it is based on what I saw my students needed. Yours probably will, too. Read the bibliography I provide on this blog (left hand column) and reach out to those experts, too.

How did you start your CSL program?

Atlas Complex

Although I totally understand the question, it is built around the assumption that I did it all by myself. I didn't.

CSL Solutions. 

You are part of a larger community; just listen and you will find CSL opportunities. Drop by your local United Way and ask them what organizations work with Spanish speakers. When you read your local newspaper, what news do you see about local Latinos? Those news items often reveal the Latino community's needs. When you shop at Latino-owned stores, strike up conversation and ask them where and how your students might be able to plug in and help. You're also part of a university community. Find others on campus who do CSL. Could you graft your program onto theirs? What is your university's mission? If public engagement is one of them, ask for resources so that you can help your unit meet the university's mission.

These are just a few of the questions I regularly receive, and just a few of the ways that we can shake off our Atlas Complex regarding CSL. You can do it. And in many ways, our students, our communities and our profession need you to do it.

I have outlined an article manuscript that I want to begin writing about this topic. What do you think I should address in the article? How does the Atlas Complex hold you back? What solutions have you found to share the responsibilities for learning in your CSL courses? Please share in the comments!

Monday, March 24, 2014

How to Teach ESL in the US or Abroad

Many students want to experience the world--and get paid by teaching ESL.  
by Ann Abbott

[This post is about how to prepare and find a job teaching English abroad. You might also be interested in reading my post about what to do once you actually get the job and have to start teaching.]

Students often ask me how they can live and work abroad. After a pivotal study-abroad experience they want to return to that country. Or explore a new country. They love languages. They love other cultures. They don't want to step right from college into a "traditional" job.

Here's the latest request for information I received:
"I am looking into getting certification to teach English to non-English speaking students. Do you know what certification is needed to be able to teach ESL here in the states and what is required to live and teach English abroad? Is it the TEFL? I am looking into the CELTA, too. There is also a certificate call the TESOL, too. I did a web search, but there seems to be a lot of mis-information out there, too."
Because this semester I have been working closely with a lovely group of professionals from Illinois' Intensive English Institute, I knew exactly who to ask. I forwarded the question to them, and one of those colleagues (Jim) mailed back this response:
"I think it all depends on where your friend wants to teach ESL. For example in the US in an intensive English program like the IEI you would most likely have to have a MATESOL degree. However, for smaller language schools and some community colleges a bachelor’s degree in anything might be enough. I taught at a community college in the Chicago suburbs and my BS in science qualified me. In order to teach ESL in a public school you would need a teaching license and an ESL endorsement. However, many public schools will allow you to teach ESL as long as you have a teaching licenses and are working towards an ESL endorsement.
"To teach outside of the U.S. I think it varies even more. I worked at small language schools in Ecuador and Bolivia where the only requirement being a native English speaker. However, those jobs don’t pay very well and are typically not very organized. Many of the teachers that I worked with in Ecuador and Bolivia had either a TEFL or CELTA certificate. This was over 10 years ago so I don’t know how much that has all changed. From what I have heard, jobs at universities abroad and at larger language schools usually at least require a CELTA or TEFL and in many cases at MATESL degree."
First, I want to say that it is normal to have difficulty knowing exactly what to ask when you are exploring options that are unfamiliar to you. So asking the experts can help you refine your questions and your own follow-up research.

I want to thank Jim for his speedy, complete and helpful response. I also want to leave you with some other resources around this question.
  • My former student Hanna Solecka describes how she found a job teaching English in Spain. 

Give Your Spanish Community Service Learning Students' Reflections an Authentic, Global Audience

Follow me at @AnnAbbott, and I will follow you.
by Ann Abbott

As much as I love social media, I just can't seem to integrate Twitter fully into my life. 

When I joined Twitter several years ago, I would tweet after each class I taught, summarizing what I had done with students. It was a nice way to share my approach to community service learning (CSL) and to promote my textbook, Comunidades: Más allá del aula. But then I got out of the habit.

At this point, Twitter is a place where I go every couple of weeks to be inspired by others.

I was delighted that Carolina Egúsquiza @cegusquiza reached out to me via Twitter this past week. 

First, she shared the link to my blog and specifically called out how much she liked reading the students' posts:

Blogging can feel kind of lonely. Even though you see the stats and know that people are reading what you post, few people leave comments. You don't get the instant feedback that Facebook or Twitter provide. So this tweet from Carolina meant a lot to me.

Then Carolina reached out again, this time sharing the link to a webinar about a topic I am passionate about: preparing students for life after college. She also included two of my good friends and colleagues: Darcy Lear @Darcy_Lear and Mary Risner @LangForCareers. She has a finger on the pulse of social media and languages for specific purposes:

Because I'm not on Twitter too often, I missed the webinar. I replied though and said that I thought it was an important topic. Carolina told me her thoughts about the webinar and emphasized again how important it is to read students' stories, to see their veiwpoints:

I replied to Carolina to let her know that I would share her thoughts with my students. I am a firm believer in providing students with writing tasks that have a real audience--not just the instructor. With social media, we have more and more ways to provide that audience. Knowing that someone will read their words, that they can have an impact with their writing, photographs, videos, curated content, etc. can be very motivating and satisfying. Carolina agreed:

I'm following Carolina (@cegusquiza) now, and I'm looking forward to reading more of what she shares on Twitter. I'm also going to share this blog post with my students on my Facebook Page so that they will see that people are indeed paying attention to their posts.

  • Are you on Twitter? Follow me at @AnnAbbott. 
  • Do you want to see and read about Spanish CSL students' experiences? Go to my blog and search for "Student Reflection" and "Student Spotlight."
  • Do you give students assignments that have a real audience? Do they get feedback from people outside of the class? Please share your ideas and strategies.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Spanish Community Service Learning Students Interpreting at Parent-Teacher Conferences

What would you do if you couldn't talk to you children's teacher?
by Ann Abbott


Parent-Teacher conferences are a crucial opportunity for families to communicate with the teachers and make concrete plans for their children's academic success. As a parent myself, I sometimes think of parent-teacher conferences as a way for us to influence how the teachers see and interact with our children: they know that behind each of children are two parents who are interested in their children's success, engaged in supporting their success at home, respectful of the teachers' work, and committed to advocating for our children.

Imagine if you couldn't talk to your kids' teachers because you didn't speak the same language.

What information about your child would you miss out on? What consequences might that have for your child? How might you be judged as a parent?

Each semester, several of my students help at Central High School's parent-teacher conference. It's really important that someone be there to help bridge the language gap.

Here's a note from the person at the school who organizes my students' work on those days:
Dear Dr. Abbott,
I just wanted to drop you a note to say thank you (again) for all your help in hooking us up with your students.  They came through with flying colors again for us this year!  I would hate to see what our conferences would have been like without them.  They are such a help to us.
I hope you are planning on doing something wonderful during break and I look forward to working with you in the fall for our conferences then.
I'm very proud of my students. But some of them don't participate because they are afraid that their Spanish isn't good enough. I won't lie: you do need a minimum level of Spanish proficiency to be able to handle these situations.

However, even for students whose Spanish is good enough, it's intimidating to know that you have the responsibility of conveying the information for the teachers and parents.

So one of my former students--Jenna Kandah, who is a codirector of the tutoring program Vis-a-Vis--is working on an independent project to provide more support to students who work at these parent-teacher conferences. This is how she explained the project and asked permission to gather information:
My name is Jenna Kandah, I'm a past student of Ann Abbott's at the University of Illinois. This semester I'm doing an independent research project with her to figure out the most helpful resources for U of I students who help interpret for Spanish speaking parents at Parent-Teacher Conferences.

I was wondering if there is any chance I can sit-in on as many PTCs as possible that have U of I Spanish speaking volunteers signed up to translate? During the sit-in, I would simply be typing the most frequently used words I hear from the teachers and a few other observations (educational target words, possible vocabulary used to indicate problems with students, questions that Spanish speaking parents might ask, proper etiquette to make a good environment for the interpretors/parents/students, etc). After as many conferences as I can sit-in on, I would make a refined list that would be included in a website of many resources I will collect for U of I students to reference before going to be interpretors at the PTCs next semester and so-on.
My goal is to help make future Spanish interpreter volunteers feel more comfortable and prepared for what they will be experiencing, because I did help translate last semester at Central and remember how worried I felt beforehand.
I'm available all of Thursday from 5-8 pm. If my sitting-in would be possible, could you let me know what times/room numbers have been designated for Spanish translators to attend? I would love to get a wide range of vocabulary for my list, so the bigger variety of subjects/teachers/grade levels I can attend the better. I know this is a lot to ask, but I thank you so much for your time and consideration! I would have no problem explaining in Spanish my role to every Spanish speaking partner whose PTC I sit-in on. I'm available to talk through phone at xxx-xxx-xxxx if you have any questions.
Here is the webpage she produced: Parent Teacher Conference Volunteer Tips. And here is more helpful information:
I'm aware that professional interpreters should do the job that my students are currently volunteering to do. However, when you work with a community and their needs are not being addressed by professionals, it's not a black or white issue. I'll address that issue in a future blog post.

What's the Value of Learning a Foreign Language in College?

by Ann Abbott

Some people complain about Facebook and say, "I don't care what the people I went to high school with had for lunch."


Facebook is so compelling for me because I have a wonderful group of friends who entertain and educate me with their posts. Because they are wonderful thinkers and conversationalists in real life, this also transfers over to their Facebook interactions.

Valerie Wilhite is one of my favorite Facebook friends. We were both graduate students at the University of Illinois, and she shares her passions for language, cultures, literatures and histories with the students of the University of Oregon. (I highly encourage you to read Valerie's bio; she tells wonderful stories about the powers of language, cultures and people.)

A few days ago, she posted this Freakonomics podcast "Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It?"


One way to react to the feedback is to simply dismiss the notion of assigning economic value to everything.
  • Should we ask what the economic return of a visit to a museum is? 
  • Should we assign differing dollar values to the friends and family we spend time with? 
No. Learning, exercising your brain, engaging yourself in different types of learning, those are all valuable in and of themselves. Learning a second (or third, fourth, etc.) language also develops some really important personal characteristics that in the end might be just as "valuable" as the language itself.
  • Humility. You will say something stupid.
  • Empathy. You should develop a new appreciation for English-language learners.
  • Patience. You have to slow waaaaay down to express your complex thoughts in a new language.
  • Responsibility. When you don't understand something, you have to use your tools to bring the conversation back to your level of understanding: "Mas despacio, por favor." "Repita la primera palabra, por favor." "No entiendo. Ayuda!"
  • Comfort with ambiguity. You will not understand everything you read or hear, and yet you will still be able to make sense of it. That's such an important life lesson.
  • And so much more. 
Valerie asked her friends to share their thoughts. And I decided to engage with the issues in the podcast, not dismiss them. (To protect other people's privacy, I will only post my part of the conversation.) 

Thanks, Valerie, I thought that was actually a very interesting podcast. Like your other friends, I also reject the notion that we have to frame everything we learn in school around the notion of how much money will it make you. However, I do understand that our students (and their parents) have very real concerns about their work-lives after college.
  • I think they painted ROI with a very broad brush. I think knowing another language is more important in some fields/jobs than others. I also think that instead of asking whether knowing Spanish (for example) earns you more money in a job, in a very competitive job market we might ask if Spanish could be the thing that actually gets you the job over another person who is monolingual. You might not have a higher salary, but at least you have a salary!
  • From my experiences with international businesses, employers are often looking more for a kind of global literacy than a specific language proficiency. They want people who can travel with ease, create relationships with people from all kinds of different places/cultures, and who have a kind of savoir faire that comes from translingual and transcultural experiences.
  • If you don't have the hard skills that a job requires, knowing Spanish (or Hebrew, Arabic, etc.) won't do you any good. We need to stop saying "Spanish will open all kinds of doors for you!" I think that it's more accurate and fair to say that Spanish combined with some other well-developed, sought-after skills will open doors for you. If my husband is looking for a marketer, he needs someone who has studied/has experience with marketing. Spanish is a plus.
  • I think our language teaching profession is wonderful and does great work, but I also think that's it's okay to look at it with a critical eye and question what we do and how we do it. I think we make a lot of claims we can't necessarily back up, especially regarding transcultural competence.
  • Thank you, Valerie , for being one of my favorite interlocutors about all things regarding languages. We share the same passion for languages, learning and thinking. Being surrounded by languages and people from other cultures makes my life (and yours, too, I know) infinitely richer. That's one heck of a ROI in my book. 

What are your thoughts about the podcast? What do you think about Facebook as a place to exchange ideas? Be an interlocutor: Leave a comment! 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Student Reflection: Kelsey Marquez

by Kelsey Marquez

When people asked me what my native language is, I didn’t always know how to respond. My parents are Mexican immigrants and do not speak English very well. They speak to me in Spanish but my two older sisters have always spoken to me in English. When I first started school, my mom enrolled me in an English-only kindergarten class. Up until college, I had never taken a Spanish class. Therefore, my English was a lot better than my Spanish, even though I could speak both fluently. But when it came down to my which one was my native language, wouldn’t it be the one that I knew best (English)?

When I came to the University and began taking Spanish classes, I was always referred to as the “native speaker”. This was interesting to me because up until then, I considered myself a native English speaker. As I took more and more Spanish/ language classes, I realized that I did not need to know everything about a language in order to call it my native language. In fact, no one knows everything that a language consists of, not even those who are native. So when asked about my native language, I now proudly say that it is Spanish. I may not have known it as well as English, but it was the first language that I was taught.

It wasn’t until I was immersed in a culture that was predominately of white descent that I realized what my native language was. I grew up in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood so everyone spoke Spanish. My friends and I knew Spanish, but we usually just spoke in English among ourselves and in Spanish when speaking to adults. But here at the University, I did not have the same opportunity to speak Spanish had I not enrolled in Spanish courses.

I decided to dorm with my Spanish speaking friend from high school in a triple room. This meant that we would have a random third roommate. Not surprisingly, our third roommate was not Hispanic. My friend and I worried that our roommate would feel uncomfortable whenever we spoke Spanish around her. But to our surprise, she was very understanding and welcoming. She tried learning Spanish right away. We had only lived together for a week and she claimed to already know how to speak Spanish. That same week, she drew a picture of all three of us on a white board saying “Yo amo a mis mexicanas”. It was pretty funny but very sweet at the same time. My friend and I were very fortunate to have her as a roommate.



I have had different experiences as a Spanish speaker depending on the situation and setting I am in. I enjoy speaking to native speakers as well as those who are learning Spanish as their second language. I look forward to interacting with the Spanish speaking community in Champaign, given the dense Latino population on campus. It’s always nice to be immersed in a culture I am very familiar with.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

How To Translate a Community Partner's Document in the Classroom

by Ann Abbott

Translating gives me a headache.

It's too hard. I never feel sure of myself. And even though I know that according to the rules you're supposed to translate from your second language (Spanish or Italian, for me) into your first language (English, for me), I also know that what our community needs desperately are translations from English to Spanish.

My colleague Prof. Anna María Escobar received a request from a community organization for a translation. She asked if my students might be able to do it. Normally I would have said no, but instead I planned the lesson below.

Note: One of my students (Cassie Grimm) is involved with a student start-up called StudyCloud. I love to support student entrepreneurs, so this semester I am using StudyCloud as my course management system. As you'll see from the screen shots below, it works like Facebook in many ways and provides a much more visually-engaging learning experience than Blackboard.

#1. First I had students explore the community partner's website to learn about who they are and what they do.

#2. Secondly, I had them apply some of the main concepts from our course, which is about social entrepreneurship, to the community partner organization. They looked to see how closely aligned the organization's programs were to its mission. They analyzed the elements of branding included on the website. They looked for income-generating opportunities. (Thinking in terms of income-generating activities--actually selling a service or product--is the most challenging thing to teach in a foreign-language course on social entrepreneurship.) I also wanted you to see in this screenshot one of the neat ways to use StudyCloud. A student wrote her group's answers as replies to my instructions. You could also assign a student to take notes during class and post them as replies. Maybe I'll do that in next week's classes....

#3. One student in the class has done her community service learning (CSL) work at the dental clinic within the Promise/Frances Nelson Clinic. She told us all about her experiences working there. I then showed this short video of a student, Val Contri, who this course two years ago and worked at the same clinic. This was a way for us to connect the CSL component of our course with our classroom activities.



#4. Then we got down to the business of translation.
  • First, I made sure they understood all the words and phrases in English. They did. 
  • Then we went back to the clinic's webpage and opened up some documents they already had posted in Spanish. I told students that when they do a translation, instead of just sitting down with a pencil and a dictionary, they should try to find some authentic documents about the same topic and pull vocabulary and phrases from there. Some of them were able to find entire sentences that they could lift for our translation project. 
  • Next, two of my students who are studying in the Center for Translation Studies came to the front of the class and explained some of the basic concepts and approaches to doing translations. 




#5. Finally, I let them begin to actually translate.
  • Each student was assigned two sentences to translate individually, using the tips and concepts we had just presented.
  • Then they got together with the other students who had translated those same sentences. They compared their translations and came up with a final version.
  • They posted their final version.
  • I copied and pasted their translations, cleaned them up, and sent the document to the community partner.
  • Now the community partner will need to tweak the translation. 


We can't provide professional-level translations, but we can provide:
  1. a lesson on translation that is grounded in a real-world project that fills a community-identified need, and
  2. a true partnership experience in which our students do volunteer work for the partner who is capable of providing a supervisory (and editor) role.
Do you teach translation in your Spanish CSL course? Do you feel overwhelmed by the community's need for translation and interpreting? Tell me about your successes and challenges in the comment!

Student Reflection: Matt Campion

Matt planting trees in Costa Rica
by Matt Campion


Hola!! My name is Matt Campion, and I am senior in LAS. I am graduating in May with a degree in political science and a minor in Spanish. I took Spanish for four years in high school, and at the time, felt that was adequate. However, upon coming to the University of Illinois, I decided that I was still very interested in Spanish and felt that it would be a very useful language to continue learning. Beginning in the fall of my sophomore year, I started the process of getting my Spanish minor beginning with Spanish 141. Twenty-four Spanish credits later, I have greatly improved my ability to understand and speak the Spanish language. It wasn’t until my junior year when I really decided to get serious about Spanish and applied to study abroad in Costa Rica for a month in the summer. Even with all the classes I had been taking, I really wanted to immerse myself in a culture that only spoke Spanish. I felt this would be the best way to learn and experience the language. My month abroad was a terrific experience, especially after living with my host family. They were the nicest people, and really made an effort to help me practice Spanish. This Costa Rica trip was also focused on volunteering in the community, and we had the opportunity to work at two different facilities for the elderly and mentally challenged. We also worked at an orphanage located in the heart of San Jose. Upon returning to campus in the fall, I was able to take three Spanish classes; two focusing on cultural history and one on oral skills. It was like immersion on campus because I did not have an English speaking class until Wednesday nights each week. I felt that this was also a really good way to practice Spanish and I learned a great deal last semester.


I actually completed my minor last semester, but my friend told me he was taking this class and I thought it might be a good opportunity to apply my Spanish. To me, the ultimate goal is to be able to speak Spanish fluently in a regular conversation and help bridge the gaps between those that speak Spanish and those that don’t. This class is a great way to start that process. I hope to gain a better understanding of the Champaign community and its school systems as well as work with students in improving the math and reading skills. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Student Reflection: Nicole Mathes

by Nicole Mathes

An Intimidated Spanish Speaker  

My name is Nicole and I am a senior at the University of Illinois, double-majoring in Psychology and Spanish with a minor in Communication. Currently I work on campus in the office of admissions as an Illinois Student Admissions Representative (ISTAR) and at Car Pool, a “rent-a-car” for faculty members. I am also heavily involved with research in both the Department of Psychology and the Department of Communication. In my psychology lab, we look at the cognitive development of children ages 3.5-8 by playing “games” with them and coding their responses. In my communication research team, we look at the Facebooks of high school students and their identity development. My experiences at the University of Illinois have led me to further my education and pursue a career as doctor of school psychology.

I was first exposed to Spanish when I was in sixth grade. At first, I was a bit reluctant to learn the language; I had been taking afterschool French for three years and even though I really had not retained anything from those classes, I still felt that I should have stuck with French. However, we had a Spanish teacher who went above and beyond and I quickly discovered that I not only enjoyed learning the language, but I was surprisingly good at the subject. Unfortunately we did not have the same spectacular teacher for 7th and 8th grade Spanish. Nevertheless my interest in Spanish continued and I decided to take four years of Spanish in high school. My junior and senior years I had the same Spanish teacher and she challenged me to increase my Spanish vocabulary and develop advanced grammar, writing, reading, and speaking abilities. Because of the knowledge and skills that I gained from her classes, I decided to double major in Spanish in college. At the end of my senior year, I recognized how prominent the Spanish language was becoming in the United States and knew that having an academic background in Spanish would be advantageous to my future career aspirations.

Honestly, my Spanish classes at the university are not what I expected they would be. The classes mainly focus on Spanish literature, linguistics, and culture; all are important areas, but I was expecting a larger emphasis to be put on Spanish grammar lessons and speaking ability. One of the reasons I wanted to take Spanish 332: Spanish & Entrepreneurship was to develop my Spanish speaking skills and gain experience in a Spanish speaking community. It’s great that classes are taught entirely in Spanish and that we are to speak to our peers in Spanish. However, classroom “talk” is not the same as actually having a conversation in Spanish in the community. For me, I am confident in my listening and writing ability, but I am often terrified to speak in Spanish and believe that experience in a Spanish community will be beneficial. Even though I have been taking Spanish classes for almost ten years, I don’t consider myself a strong speaker and am intimidated in situations where I should and can be speaking in Spanish. My hope is that by working in a bilingual classroom at Garden Hills Elementary School, I will be forced to practice my Spanish and, in the end, will gain more confidence in my Spanish speaking ability. I am excited to work with students at the school and cannot wait to see what I learn from them!     

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Teaching Spanish Community Service Learning Students How to Participate in the Political Process

Students formulated their own questions, then answered them.
by Ann Abbott

My "Spanish in the Community" students took their midterm exam last week, and now I am framing the second half of the semester in a slightly different way. I want to build a wider perspective into the class (looking at local, regional, national, and global dimensions of immigration) and most importantly:

show students that the knowledge we gain in classes (and life) can be put to use to do something.

So here's how today's class was structured.
  1. I shared  Illinois Coalition for Immigrant Refugee Rights' press release about Senator Dirk Durbin's Call for Administrative Relief from Deportations, and asked students to simply read it.
  2. Unless you are fully steeped in immigration reform and the issues that surround it, the press release raises questions. So I put students into pairs and told them to generate a list of at least ten questions they had about the information in the press release. I chose the number ten because that forces you to go beyond the most obvious questions and formulate some questions that are deeper, broader. The students spoke a lot and collaborated very nicely.
  3. I asked each group to rank their questions from the most vital in order to understand the issues (#1) to the least vital, but still important (#10). The pairs shared their top question with the whole class. Some of them were factual: "How many people have been deported in the past X years?" Some questions were more complex: "What are the effects of deportations?"
  4. I then formed different student pairs. That meant that each pair had two different sets of ranked questions. Students had to choose only one of the two #1 questions and then use their phones, laptops and tablets to find the answers to that question. Then they had to choose one of the two #2 questions and find the answer on the internet. And so forth.
  5. We stopped for a few minutes to analyze the kind of information they were finding. Students indicated that there was a lot of (too much?) information, some of it was contradictory, it was difficult to evaluate the quality of the sources, and most of the information they found was in English. 
  6. I told them that YouTube is the second most frequently used search engine on the web, and asked them to now switch to YouTube and search for the same question. Is the information you find in videos, on YouTube, any different than what you found using Google? They indicated that there was more in Spanish and that much of the information had more of a person, story-telling slant.
  7. Finally, I told them that once you become more informed about a topic, you can decide to do something with that information. I gave them the link to Senator Dick Durbin's contact page, and asked them to write him a message. I told them that they didn't have to click send if they didn't want to, but that they could. I didn't check, but I think that several students did send him a message.
  8. I concluded by saying that I cannot directly change the law. My students cannot either. But that we absolutely can influence the politicians who make the laws. Contacting our Senators and Representatives with informed opinions is one very real way to put our new knowledge to use.
  9. Some students chose to write a comment on our Facebook Page instead of writing directly to Senator Durbin.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Truth Nobody Told You about Speaking Spanish

"Spanish in the Community" students, using Spanish in the classroom.
My "Spanish in the Community" students wrote their first reflective essay, and Justin Sandler focused his on what it's really like to learn Spanish and communicate with native-speakers. I was struck by his insightful understanding of what our language education took years to understand: communication, not perfection is the key. I asked Justin if I could share his essay, and he graciously agreed. He translated it to English and made some changes here to make it less about his specific experiences doing community service learning, and more about what it really means to use a language to construct understanding between two individuals, two cultures. --Ann

The Truth Nobody Told You about Speaking Spanish
by Justin Sandler

It has consistently interested me that so many students say that they can understand Spanish and know a lot of vocabulary and grammar, yet they are so afraid to speak it. Often times these types of students are even Spanish minors and majors.  I feel that students of the Spanish language have this idea that speaking Spanish with Hispanic people must be done without errors since they are native speakers. I believe that this is a paralyzing approach that will prohibit many students from learning Spanish, or any other language for that matter.  In this post I hope to illustrate the point that speaking Spanish is much more about communication than perfection. Below I go through a couple important points to create a confidence in this new perspective of language pursuit.

Firstly: You do not need to speak Spanish flawlessly to speak Spanish. Not only is it not possible to speak without errors, but it is also not even necessary.  Again, speaking in another language is not about perfection but about communication.  Do not worry about using your advanced grammar, difficult words and big beautiful ideas.  It is most important that you communicate what you wish to. Plus even our English majors here at U of I do not always speak their own language and major perfectly, so take some comfort in that. Perfection is not your friend, communication is.

Secondly: You do not need to understand Spanish flawlessly to speak Spanish. If you can understand 50% or more of the words and structures that a person uses, than it is very possible you will understand the main ideas as well.  Remember that it’s about communication.  The context clues can be extremely useful as well. Watch the other person’s eyes, their hands, the way they speak and the rises and falls of their voice. From all this, and simply the context of what is around you, there are a lot of things to cue you of the meaning needed to understand. All of this is part of using another language, extending far past comprehension of individual words.

Thirdly: It is extremely rare that anyone will be upset with you for making errors while speaking with them in another language.  If it is our fear that we don’t want them to be mad at us and think we are idiots, well, they don’t.  This is simply what we think they will think; not how it actually is.

I think this stems from the idea that as Americans we can be very harsh judges of peoples English, especially those who speak it as a second language.  This is simply part of our culture, largely because we are the most powerful country, and that business usually is conducted in English throughout the world.  However for what I have seen outside of the US, people are so proud that we have gone out of our way to learn about their beautiful culture and language.  This is something that really excites them, and they usually want to be part of it and help. Think of the other person as someone who wants to make the interaction happen, not as someone making fun of you. For everything right (or even close to right) that you do, they get super excited to praise you.  For everything wrong that you do, that understand anyway and would love to help if you want them to. Pretty good deal I think!

It may very well be the case that we have this same fear of being judged because our only experience of using Spanish is in a class room, being judged!! How ironic is that?  The one thing that is supposed to teach us to comfortable with the language, at the same time, seems to (in a strange way) paralyze us. Of course not all Spanish classes are like this, and these classes are very important to our development, but remember that this is the real world I am talking about, not a college bubble where we are taking oral exams and getting points off for saying things wrong.  They want to give you a 100%, not take points off you. By our new logic: if you can have the strength to walk into a Spanish class room, then you can also have the strength to communicate with your Spanish. 

Fourthly:  I think a lot of students might feel that since they have a different culture and background on how they see the world, that there is a little bit of a disconnect there past the simple “language barrier.”  I feel this is also a dangerous idea since it is one more thing that makes us students think, “Oh boy, there is a big gap here, and I’m not so sure my Spanish is going to bridge it….after all…I did get a B – on my midterm…” 

Try to think of Hispanic people as people just like you.  This is not a mind trick, they really are.  All people, Americans, Hispanics and beyond really hold true to a handful of basic things that make us all the same.  For example, they have families, as we do.  They have friends, school, work, girlfriends, boyfriends, music, parties, clubs, bars, drinks, foods, stress, fears, hopes and dreams, insecurities, love and… we all have these same things!  Don’t think of them as “Hispanic people.” Instead just think of them as “people” because that’s really a more accurate way to see anyone, especially when you want to connect with someone else, which is the whole point of learning another language. Right?

I know that learning a different language can be difficult, but remember that we are all people and that our interactions in real life (not Spanish class) are about communication, not perfection.  If we can understand this idea, then we can overcome this barrier of fear and learn to speak Spanish.  Now that we have knocked down the big barriers, it is time for you to take your Spanish to the next level. This is the truth nobody told you about speaking Spanish.  Ready: GO!

Gracias,

Justin

PS A special thanks to the Spanish classes that helped bring us this far J