Language Departments: Creating a Community of Practice with and for Students

Darcy Lear, me and Kristina Medina at St. Olaf.
by Ann Abbott

I had such a wonderful visit at St. Olaf College last week. Darcy Lear and I were invited there to share with their language students and Romance Languages (French and Spanish) faculty about the combination of professional development and language curricula. As usual, I took away more than I gave.

First, I'd like to mention just some of the wonderful faculty we met:
  1. Prof. Wendy Allen, Chair, was a lovely host. Both Darcy and I felt that we had met our third musketeer. She was forward-looking in all respects, yet grounded as well. What a terrific combination. I loved hearing about the "J term" course that she and her husband coordinate in both Paris and Morocco. (I ran home and told my daughter, who loves math, about the geometry course Wendy's husband teaches using the tile patterns in Arabic architecture. That would have been a math course even I could have enjoyed.) Finally, Wendy is an expert in content-based instruction, something near and dear to my heart as an LSP educator.
  2. I have to give a huge shout-out to Assistant Professor Kristina Medina Vilariño. Kristina was a graduate student here at Illinois, and I admired her teaching and her critical thinking about many social as well as literary issues. I enjoy her posts on Facebook, which is how we had stayed in touch until this recent visit. 
  3. Prof. Gwen Barnes-Karol is one of the most passionate and committed language educators I have met. I first met her at the 2014 LSP conference in Boulder, Colorado where she gave a keynote talk. Just a few months later, I saw her again at the AATSP conference in Panama. So it was great to see her in her element and observe in action the curricular ideas she presented in her keynote.
  4. I was also taken by Associate Professor Maggie Broner because of her energy, innovative spirit and creative courses. She incorporates design think and enivronmental sustainability into her teaching in very interesting ways--ways that I would like to copy!
  5. Everyone, just everyone we met was a delight.
So now I'll list some of the things that I took away from the wonderful things they do in their department.

Content from the beginning, language until the end

This was a phrase that rolled off everyone's tongue. They do it. They believe it. They do content-based teaching in the basic language program, and they provide language scaffolding in all their courses. I love it! This eliminates one of the biggest problems in departments: the gulf between basic language courses--which take a "random scattering" approach to content--and the upper level courses that seem to think that students are acquiring language just because they are reading a literary text--that they might or might not understand.

Community of Practice

Students have to participate in a "community of practice;" in other words, they need to attend events that enhance their coursework. The faculty likened it to the music program at St. Olaf (which is huge!) which tells students that they are expected to participate in the life of music around the campus--concerts, recitals, theater, etc.--as part of their music education. They have pink cards that get stamped/punched at each event. French and Spanish tell their students the same thing. I love this idea and would love to do it here at Illinois.

Student Learning Goals

The entire college developed a set of clear goals--a flower with eight petals--for student learning: STOGoals. All of those goals make a lot of sense to me. They describe my feelings about a liberal arts education in very clear language.
They also provide a "map" where professors and students can move from general goals (e.g., "Responsible engagement") to specific activities (e.g., Spanish community service learning would be one) in many areas of student life.
This kind of map facilitates good planning and assessment. I also think that it would make for a good in-class activity or reflective essay: fill in the chart with specific examples of your experiences; or, walk around the room and get the signatures of students who have experienced this in their time at college.

Then at the program level, their intended learning outcomes are specific and focused, too. The French major, for example, focuses on three elements. Students will demonstrate:
  1. Language proficiency.
  2. Textual competence.
  3. Interaction within a community of practice.

Cooperation with the Career Center

Both Darcy and I were blown away by the professionalism and range of resources offered to St. Olaf students and departments by the Piper Center. Talk about feeling envious! It was a top-notch career center with valuable online and face-to-face resources. Browse through the Piper Center for Vocation and Career's website. You'll see many resources that open to all and pertinent to students at any college. Could you use any of those resources with your students? Could you build a lesson plan around the questions, templates and links they provide?


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