From the August 2021 Desktop News | Students in The University of Alabama’s Spanish program are taking their language skills outside of the college classroom and into local schools. Each semester, around 15 students with Spanish majors or minors participate in the Spanish Outreach program, a course where they spend at least six hours per week mentoring and tutoring local Hispanic students.
Founded in 2003 by Dr. Michael Schnepf, now an emeritus professor of Spanish at UA, Spanish Outreach was created to meet the need for help in schools that came with the growing Hispanic population in the area, and serve as a community-engaged teaching and learning experience for students.
“A lot of Hispanic students who were coming into local schools were placed in their classrooms only based on age, and many of them didn’t know any English,” said Dr. Shirin Posner, the current director of the program. “Setting up this program was a wonderful way for our students and university to give back to the community.”
To participate in Spanish Outreach, students must first complete courses on Spanish conversation and advanced Spanish grammar before interviewing for one of the limited spots. Once admitted, the students, or outreachers, work with English language learner (ELL) specialists at the schools. They can be assigned to students anywhere from elementary schools to Shelton State Community College’s English language class for adults based on the advancement of their Spanish speaking abilities.
While an outreacher working with Shelton State could create lesson plans, an outreacher working with younger students might be tasked with explaining their books and assignments to them. The varying levels of need make every outreacher’s experience both unique and challenging.
“They have to be creative when working with the children, because not every child learns in the same way,” Posner said. “These aren’t education majors, so they don’t know very much about education and have to be very creative to figure out ways to make things click, but it’s very gratifying for them.”
Sometimes the outreachers even have students who speak no English and little Spanish, Posner said, but the connections they build are still strong. Posner says it warms the outreachers’ hearts to witness the progress their students make and their excitement when they enter their classrooms.
“A lot of times the outreachers are not only a mentor but become a friend to the students, because many of them are in a situation where no one around them speaks their language,” Posner said. “They provide comfort and extra support.”
The outreachers provide support for each other as well, meeting mid-semester to share their experiences and exchange successful methods of teaching. They also periodically write reflections and discuss them with the director, a title which will be passed to instructor of Spanish Kelley Luna starting this fall.
Posner says that the students are polishing their Spanish and correcting any repeated mistakes. She also says that guidance and real-world experience are what make the program a worthwhile experience.
“The students get to help these English language learners, but at the same time, they’re reaping incredible benefits,” Posner said. “It’s a win-win.”