Cultural Exchange in the Classroom: ELL Practicum

Students are learning about other cultures while helping community members learn English!

By Nicole O’Connell

On a recent Tuesday morning in a Sullivan classroom, WSU students and members of the local community stared at the whiteboard as it became an ever-growing list of red objects. Already dotting the board, in red dry-erase marker of course, were items ranging from apples to amaryllises. One participant raised her hand and suggested blood, inciting light laughter and smirks from those nearby, surprised by this obvious yet unexpected choice.

The course is the English Language Learning Practicum. It is one of the four one-credit courses run by the Urban Action Institute on campus, the others being Garden, Hunger Outreach Team (SNAP Program), and Youth Leadership. Though these practicums are offered out of the Urban Studies Department, they are open to students of any major. The practicums aim to tackle injustices, strengthen community, and promote student development.

In the spring 2019 semester, there are two sections of the ELL practicum, one held on campus and one held at the Worcester Refugee Assistance Project. The on-campus practicum is open for any English language learner in the community to partake in. Many of the learners walk over from the Bet Shalom apartments across the street.

WSU students are enjoying this opportunity to serve as tutors and help their community. While the majority of the time is spent with learners and tutors working together on a topic of the learner’s choice, there are occasional class discussions. At the start of this semester, tutors helped learners register for the course and get their OneCards. As the weeks have passed, classroom topics have ranged from Esther Howland, Worcester’s valentine maven, to idioms about farm animals. In semesters past, tutors have helped learners study for the citizenship test.

This is WSU senior and business administration major Francesca Jandrow’s first time taking the course. She initially signed up for the course because she needed an extra credit, but considers the experience to be better than expected. So far, Jandrow has worked with a woman from Albania, focusing on colors, feelings, grammar, spelling, sounding things out, and pronouncing the alphabet. Though they do not speak each other’s language, their discussions are filled with smiles.

For veterans of the class, that enthusiasm is still present. Lexi Da Cunha, an urban studies and sociology major, enjoys the practicum so much, she is taking it for the third time. During her first semester she worked with a multitude of different learners; many of them had relocated from Puerto Rico to Worcester after Hurricane Maria.

While Albanian and Spanish are two of the most common languages the learners speak, Russian, Mandarin, Syrian, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, Italian, and Greek have also been the first languages of the participants. For some of the learners, English is their third, fourth, or even fifth language!

“These people are so motivated to learn,” said Jean Abdella, the session leader for the Tuesday practicum. “They are so brave to do this.”

Da Cunha agreed, saying, “The learners are here because they want to be; they are super eager to learn.”

The ELL practicum was started by Professor Emerita Maureen Power of the Urban Studies Department. Power also started the Intergenerational Urban Institute, now the Urban Action Institute, spurred by her interests in social justice work. She was elder-focused and began the ELL practicum after realizing many elders who had immigrated to the United States were isolated and because they were not working or in school, had no opportunities to learn English. Since Dr. Adam Saltsman and Joanne Jaber Gauvin have taken over the Institute in the past few years, their focus has relied more heavily on social justice. While the Tuesday practicum is intergenerational, the learners are of all ages, not just elders.

Abdella explained that students taking the practicum learn about the challenges and frustration that occur when your language is not understood.

Da Cunha was able to witness some of these challenges with her learner last semester. In the fall, Da Cunha worked with a man who had been a massage therapist in Moscow. His wife was an English teacher, but he wanted additional assistance and sought it out at Worcester State. Because of his former profession, he and Da Cunha reviewed the words for different parts of the body.

“It’s crazy” Da Cunha exclaimed, “he had a degree in massage therapy over there, but couldn’t get a basic job here because of the language barrier.”

The man did not return this semester and Da Cunha is hopeful he was able to find a job. While tutors are happy when learners become comfortable with the English language and stop feeling the need to attend, they agree it is also nice to see the learners return to the class and continue their education and friendship with the class members.

However, the exchange is not an imbalanced one; tutors also learn from the learners.

“I always say I learn more from them than they learn from me,” Da Cunha said of the cultural exchange participants partake in. “It’s a rewarding experience.”

During one class, tutors listened as a woman from China explained what she put into the dumplings she made over the weekend. A few minutes later, the learner and tutors rejoiced over finding out they had all read the American novel The Outsiders.

To top off the service to the community and the cultural exchange, students are also gaining important skills.

Jandrow called the knowledge she is gaining “pretty awesome.” She hopes to own her own company and through this course she is learning people skills and patience, helpful abilities for someone with these goals.

Da Cunha agreed about learning patience and added that strategic planning is another skill gained. Throughout the semesters, she has come up with a variety of lesson plans, games, and flash cards to help her learners grow more comfortable with the English language.

At a recent class, two more learners joined the group: a couple who had lived in the Dominican Republic. Because Da Cunha did not know they would be joining the class, she was not able to prepare a lesson beforehand, but her experience allowed her to quickly build a relationship with the couple and determine what would best help them.

This practicum is certainly leaving an impact on its participants. In the future, Da Cunha plans to continue helping minoritized populations, saying, “It encouraged me to pursue this in my spare time.”

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