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Service Learning Across Cultures: Students, Communities Connect Through ESL Classes

On a Tuesday afternoon in Chicago’s diverse Albany Park neighborhood, DePaul student Robyn Franko works with a group of adult students from many countries who are trying to meet a major challenge – mastering the English language. Earlier this year, Franko was a student in “Writing and Social Engagement: Teaching and Tutoring ESL,” a service learning class that connects students to four community sites around the city that teach or tutor English as a Second Language. On a given day, she might be working with students from Korea, Mexico, Yemen and a host of other countries.

It’s common for Franko to gain firsthand experience learning about different cultures – from teaching women who grew up in cultures in which they were reluctant to speak in public, to her experience with one man who, during a small group session, spontaneously sang a song in his native language, Korean. “My experience in the classroom prepared me for what to expect from students, what to look for, and what kind of things students want to learn,” Franko says. “I also learned to take into account what people from different cultures need.” The challenge of working with people of very different backgrounds is a common one for many students taking service learning courses. In this case, barriers may not be just economic or even cultural – they extend to the most basic level of understanding what people from diverse linguistic backgrounds seek to communicate. One outcome is for DePaul students, and the students they teach, to experience a kind of transformation. “The ideal is that our students will have sort of a ‘light bulb moment,’ but usually there is tension in the first part of class, because sites seem so different to students,” says Christine Tardy, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse who has taught the the course WRD 377 Writing and Social Engagement: Teaching and Tutoring ESL for three years. “What happens is that when DePaul students show up, they see the reality of what people served by these programs face. When they teach at these sites, they can see a world opening up to them.” ​For Tardy, being at DePaul has helped open up for her the world of teaching ESL at the community level to immigrant groups. After years of teaching English overseas -- in Czechoslovakia, Turkey and Japan – and then receiving a doctorate in ESL and Applied Linguistics at Purdue University, she came to DePaul in 2004. “Between “DePaul’s mission and the structure Steans offers, there was an opportunity to teach service learning classes in ESL,” she says. “There’s also such a high level of demand, since so many people in the city want ESL support.” Along the way, Tardy worked with the Chicago Federation of Labor, whose Worker Assistance Committee wanted to build a database of ESL services in the city that would benefit those who have recently arrived in the U.S. from Mexico and other countries. Tardy’s undergraduate students compiled information about ESL services in the city for the Federation’s database; graduate students designed a class on ESL course development and, later, an ESL class on how to use English in job interviews. For students in Tardy’s “Writing and Social Engagement Class,” learning about ESL is a multifaceted opportunity. Students explore the theory and practice of teaching ESL, as well as cutting-edge issues tied to immigration and other political and cultural topics related to the subject. The experience provides a rich context for students that helps them engage with adult learners in ESL classes in a more meaningful way. In February, for example, a speaker with Chicago-based Latinos Progresando, which provides legal immigration services, education and a range of other programs for immigrants, spoke to the class about citizenship and key policies facing immigrants. Students also participate in reflection sessions with other students, a process that enables them to see how others are going through service learning experience in different communities – like Albany Park, Uptown and Pilsen.​​
Class Reaches Out to Diverse Communities 
Through Tardy’s class, students gain experience at a range of community centers -- including a small classroom at the Telpochcalli Education Project in the southwest side neighborhood of Little Village and at the Albany Park Community Center, a large communitybased organization on the city’s northwest side. Robyn Franko, who graduated from DePaul in March with a degree in English, calls her service learning work at the Albany Park Community Center “probably my favorite experience in college. It allowed me to see how the other half lives. I grew up in the suburbs, and never saw this kind of community diversity. It was a real eyeopener – I had to learn how to explain myself 17 ways for 17 students.” Franko was required to be at the site once a week but usually chose to be there twice a week. She points out how the class combined what they learned in class at DePaul and what they found when they taught in a community-based classroom. “In the DePaul class,” she noted, “I learned a lot about theory – in Albany Park I learned about the application of that theory.” ​​
One day at the site, students were given a page with images of nearly twenty specific topics, like work, sports, friends and family, and were asked to identify them. The exercise, like many others, gave Franko and the students a chance to build key skills. “This experience helped me develop the ability to listen and decipher what people are saying,” Franko explained. “I learned more about how to be patient and flexible. Students learned to identify specific words and situations, and how to talk about them.” Franko says she would like to continue working in Albany Park as a volunteer. In Chicago’s Uptown community, Muhammad Luqman expressed a similar sentiment based on his experience teaching at the Indo-American Community Center. Luqman, a senior in International Studies, said that “this experience was really about ‘learning as you go’ – for me, as well as for the students.” On one level, Luqman understands the everyday challenges and needs of students at the Center, which serves South Asian immigrants. Luqman, who grew up in Pakistan, lives with his wife and two children and drives a cab in Chicago. “I had faced many of the questions these people face as an immigrant,” he says. “It was a nice experience to be able to work with them – a combination of providing a service to them, observing, and then writing about it for my class.” Zachary Brenner, a senior majoring in Religious Studies at DePaul, completed his service learning experience at Telpochcalli Community Education Project where he mostly worked with Mexican immigrants. “The experience I had in this class was really about how to develop personal relationships,” he says. “I found that if one could do that, that facilitates learning to a great extent. If two people come into a situation and are receptive to embracing each other’s ideas, there is always a common human bond that can be formed.” Brenner also notes how his experience in the classroom and service site reinforced each other. “In this class, there is never a gap between your weekly experience at a service site and weekly academic work in the classroom – they inform each other,” he says. “It’s a way of doing service after being prepared to do it.” ​

Sites Reflect Value of Service Learning 
Maria Velazquez, who coordinates the adult program for Telpochcalli, says the class enables adult students at that site to share what they need with DePaul students, often in a way that reflects daily challenges many Americans may take for granted. “Parents might ask what they need to say when they go to a hospital or make appointments,” she says. “These are very important concerns, and of course language can be a barrier in many situations.” At the Albany Park Community Center, DePaul students like Franko participate in an ESL program that is making a difference for scores of people who depend on it to learn a new language. More than 1,000 people a year take ESL classes at the Center, according to Michelle Fleming, adult literacy and volunteer director at the site. Albany Park community is also one of the most diverse communities in Chicago with over 40 different languages spoken in public schools. Fleming says that one major benefit of having DePaul students in ESL classrooms at the site is simply “having another English speaker in the class. Students hear another voice. We find that when students are not here, we miss them.” “Language acquisition in this class is like a patchwork quilt – people bring very different ‘patches’ to the classroom. adds Grace Watson, who teaches ESL classes at the site.” “DePaul students can do things I don’t have time to do. That’s so important, because it means my students receive more attention.” For Tardy, the service learning experience students go through exposes them to something they could not have fully anticipated. Yes, preparation in the classroom, reflection and applying what they have learned while teaching adult learners are all essential parts of the experience. She suggests, however, that there’s also an excitement and vitality about teaching ESL that students remember. “What happens is, students show up to these sites and it’s real life and has a rich context,” she says. That’s the nature of teaching – it’s never exactly as you expect it’s going to be.” ​