Teaching and Learning Institute

Spanish professor creates service learning opportunities for students

Giovanna Steyaert, Visiting Assistant Professor of Modern Languages, created a new initiative linking student volunteers with local organizations and programs in Pottstown, PA. Spanish students at all levels were invited to participate, and fourteen students volunteered over the course of the Fall 2014 semester.

Thanks to a TLI Grant for Pedagogical Innovation and Experimentation, Steyaert developed four volunteer programs in Pottstown, PA: ESL classes for adult Spanish speakers at ACLAMO; mentoring Hispanic children at Centro Cultural Latinos Unidos; an Adult Spanish Book Club at the Pottstown Regional Public Library; and Spanish Story Time for young heritage speakers also at the Pottstown Regional Public Library. At the beginning of the semester, Steyaert interviewed each volunteer and placed them in a program that best fitted their skills, interests, and schedule. Spanish majors, minors, and even those in Elementary Spanish were invited. In total, fourteen volunteers participated.

Although several students received a grade in the Spanish class they were taking, their motivation was to make a difference in the community and to use their Spanish outside the classroom. In order to monitor the success rate of these programs, students completed a Pre and Post Surveys. In addition, they kept a weekly journal where they wrote about their experiences.The Pre Survey showed four areas where students already felt comfortable: working with people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds; understanding and appreciating the cultural differences between Americans and people from Spanish-speaking countries; knowing the importance of creating a culture of service; and linking academic learning to applied learning experiences. The Pre Survey also showed certain areas where students felt less comfortable: speaking in Spanish with native speakers; awareness of the cultural diversity within the Spanish-speaking community; and knowledge of the literary and cultural traditions from the Spanish speaking world. The Post Survey revealed a significant improvement in these weaker areas, whereas the stronger areas remained strong after the volunteering. At the end of the semester, students were asked how the volunteering program could be improved. Steyaert noted “it was very helpful to read these student comments,” which included: 

“I think that maybe if more people were aware of the opportunity then there would be more volunteers”.

 “I wouldn’t have minded coming up with games or suggesting books in the future”.

“The program. was well run and I really got a lot out of the experience”.

“Making sure the students volunteering are very willing to be consistent with their commitment and are able to volunteer for a semester…”

“The best way to improve the program would probably be to make it seem worth more in the eyes of the College”.

At the end of the semester, the Modern Languages Department held a Thank You Event which the volunteers, some faculty members, and the Directors of the Pottstown ACLAMO and Centro Cultural Latinos Unidos attended. The four programs will continue in the spring of 2015, thanks to collaboration between the Modern Languages Department and the Pottstown community. Finally, the Chair of the Modern Languages Department is currently looking into the possibility of offering these service learning opportunities as one or two credit courses.