Spanish Community Service Learning in an Intermediate Course

by Ann Abbott

I wanted to teach our fourth-semester Spanish language course this semester so that I could use the intermediate Spanish textbook that Holly and I had worked so hard on (and that I believed in), and also because I wanted to see for myself what it means to do foreign language community service learning at the 100-level. 

My plan was to do what I have always said you could do: focus on one-time events (to start, at least), match the task to the students' abilities, and lower or raise the supervision depending on "the stakes" of the task at hand. 

So I did that. The goal for the experience was not necessarily about language learning at all. Instead it was about learning about the local Latino community. About seeing themselves as language learners in a world where people speak Spanish outside of the classroom. About feeling a connection, seeing a reason for learning Spanish, recognizing themselves as possessing valuable knowledge.

For the students who had the personality and the Spanish for it, I specifically pushed them to work at the parent-teacher conferences. Almost all the heritage language students. Some of the second language learners. Jack. Specifically, Jack. I pushed him to at least consider it. We role-played it a bit in class with Daniel. He saw that he could do it.

And he did it! Jack gave me permission to post his reflection here. I'm so glad he did. That they have all done something in the community. Hurray!

The Translator
by Jack Lipinsky

Going into the parent teacher conferences last Thursday night, I was very worried that I was going to be unable to relay any of the information that the teacher was trying to convey to the parents about their child’s performance in school. I really was not very confident in my Spanish speaking abilities at the time. When I was finally assigned to a parent and student, I was as mentally prepared as I ever was going to be. I introduced myself to Juanita and her father. Juanita was extremely shy and her father did not speak much English at all. With some hesitation, we set off to our first conference of the night.  Much to my surprise, the first teacher, Ms. Thompson, asked the father if he would prefer to communicate in English or Spanish and proceeded to fluently converse with him in Spanish much better than I ever could have. She made it quite easy on me and allowed me to just observe and learn in an auditory fashion. It was an extremely easy first conference, but the rest of the night would be much more hands-on.

Later in the night, while we were waiting outside of a classroom for a conference to start, I had a conversation in Spanish with the parents of another one of the students I was helping translate for. I asked them for their patience with me because I was by no means an expert in Spanish but that I would try my best. The father told me that I am better than I think and that this was one of the best ways to get practice with the language. He understood the difficulties with learning and becoming adept at a new language. He told me that he understands English pretty well when hearing it, but the difficulty comes when he has to produce what he wants to say back to them. I shared this same difficulty when translating throughout the night. I could understand both parties, and could internalize what they wanted me to convey to the others but it would take me a while to vocalize the same meaning. I don’t know that the parent understood how much this conversation meant to me, but, at the time, it really helped calm my nerves for the remainder of the night.

For the most part, all parties involved with the process (the parents, students, and teachers) were all very accommodating and understanding throughout the night. It was implicitly understood that we were all there to help further the education and development of the students. I believe that the knowledge that I gained from previous courses benefited me greatly. The majority of the vocabulary that they used to describe their school experiences was quite easy to translate because it was some of the first Spanish that I ever learned.

Overall, it was an extremely satisfying experience being able to help the teachers and parents communicate with each other! There’s nothing quite like seeing the joy in a parent’s expression when you relay that their child is succeeding and actively participating in class. I realized that I may not be the most experienced or fluent Spanish speaker, but I know a lot more than I believed I did. When you completely immerse yourself in the language, it is so much more beneficial to learning than if you are conversing with other people who would much rather be speaking in English. This was by far the most rewarding experience that I have ever had from being able to communicate in Spanish! This experience has made me want to travel to a Spanish speaking country after I graduate and see how well I can communicate and live normally in a foreign culture.


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