Written by Susan A. Hildebrandt, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics & Spanish, Illinois State University
The teacher education program in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures (LAN) at Illinois State University was one of 11 language programs from across the nation recently recognized by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages’ (ACTFL) inaugural Global Engagement Initiative. ACTFL is the flagship organization for K-16 language teachers in the United States, and the recognition is good for four years.
LAN teacher candidates, as part of their clinical experiences for LAN 320 World Language Teaching in K-12 Settings, spend 25 hours at Unity Community Center getting to know Unity youth the first half of the semester and teach them beginning language the second half. As the area has few local public elementary schools with language programs, teacher candidates in the class may have little experience teaching younger learners a language other than English. Unity Community Center is located two miles north of Illinois State and serves as multicultural “Out of School Time site” for 5- to 18-year olds from “families with limited resources” (Unity website).
The goals for the language program at Unity are multifaceted. The first is to teach language and cultures to K-5th graders, allowing ISU teacher candidates to put into practice what they learn in their teacher education classes. The second goal is to give teacher candidates experiences interacting with younger learners and their families, which they wouldn’t otherwise get. The third is to provide high quality programming for Unity. And the fourth goal is to assist the monolingual Unity directors in communicating with parents whose first language is French or Spanish. Teacher candidates work at Unity throughout the semester and get to know the Unity youth before teaching seven weeks of language lessons the second half of the semester. At times, they also interpret meetings between native speaking parents of Spanish or French and the monolingual Unity personnel. Valuable experiences with Unity youth, parents, and classmates open teacher candidates’ eyes to a variety of perspectives that they wouldn’t otherwise get in their educational preparation. Unity youth, families, and personnel gain quality early language instruction that they would not have without the program.
Teaching language to K-5th grade Unity youth allows teacher candidates to learn how to co-teach with each other, construct standards-based and learner-centered lessons, create meaningful performance assessments, and learn how to use 90+ percent of the target language in their instruction in a real world setting. They learn how to integrate cultural perspectives into each lesson, to manage a classroom of wiggly, young learners, and to communicate with parents. Teacher candidates expand their linguistic and cultural competence when they interact with parents of Unity youth, while Unity youth’s linguistic and cultural competence grows with each lesson. Finally, teacher candidates immediately debrief with classmates after lessons at Unity and alone in writing for the next week, which helps teacher candidates learn how to offer colleagues constructive criticism and to help everyone do better the next week.
The program began in the spring of 2012 and has occurred nearly every semester since, for at least 7 weeks a semester. It was initially funded by a SoTL small grant in 2011 and further supported by an American Democracy Project course redesign in 2014. Unity has expressed its appreciation for the program by recognizing it with Distinguished Program Awards the last three years. This multiyear collaboration with Unity has transformed the LAN teacher education program.
A new group of teacher candidates will continue teaching languages to Unity youth each fall for the foreseeable future. An exciting development in the program is that it is now expanding to spring semesters, with the help of the ISU language clubs, including the Spanish Club, Sigma Delta Pi (Spanish Honor Society), and Pi Delta Phi (French Honor Society). We were recently awarded a grant from the ISU Senior Professionals and the American Democracy Project to complement the language teaching done in the fall by the LAN 320 class. “ISU Language Clubs and Unity Youth Read Spanish and French” will feature members of the language clubs reading Spanish- and French-language children’s books to Unity youth and their parents, as well as working one-on-one with Unity youth on bilingual puzzles and games.
The original SoTL grant investigated the benefits and challenges to language teacher candidates as they volunteered at a community center. Using data gathered from existing class assignments and recursive qualitative data analysis, a clearer picture of ISU students’ language teaching beliefs emerged, along with Unity youth and personnel’s characteristics, strengths, and needs. That feedback allowed me to create a better learning environment for both ISU students and Unity youth, as the content of the practicum course evolved to support ISU students in their new teaching role at the center. That work at Unity features as a prominent aspect of my own ongoing scholarship, with a 2014 article entitled “Mutually beneficial service learning: Language teacher candidates in a local community center” published in a regional language teaching journal. The initial project begun with the 2011 SoTL small grant enabled the program to develop into a nationally recognized program, and I anticipate continuing this research in the upcoming months and years, as my students continue working with Unity youth.