Learning beyond the classroom

Sometimes the most valuable learning takes place outside the classroom and without a textbook in sight. Such was the case when 13 international students – armed simply with  a notebook and pen, the willingness to really listen, and the universal language of compassion – signed on for a unique pilot program last spring at Lone Star College-CyFair.
  
In her Service Learning class, Associate Professor Sharon Bippus matches each of her English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students with an elderly resident of a local assisted-living center. Through weekly interactions, students are afforded the opportunity to practice listening and speaking skills with the ultimate objective of writing the biography of his/her senior partner.

 Evelyn Romero went into the class expecting to practice her English. What she didn’t anticipate was such a vivid real-life lesson in American history and culture, in addition to the cherished bond she established with an 87-year-old woman named Birdell. From her stories in a one-room schoolhouse to her farmhouse with no electricity, Birdell had secured an attentive audience in her new friend.

For Gloria Rico, a native of Colombia, developing a “listening ear” involved overcoming the jitters that hindered her initial hour-long meeting with “match,” Rodrigo. From the first awkward meeting to countless hours of seeing life through his eyes, Rico felt privileged to share in his story. There were tearful moments and moments of pride as the class evolved into something quite different from simply improving English skills.
    
As this year’s students are introduced to the guidelines and objectives for the semester, they await one important event with excitement and a note of apprehension - that moment, when each resident reaches into the paper sack to draw a name of his/her match. While the initial introduction was met with a bit of anxiety for most students,  the final day of class was marked with emotion rarely displayed in a traditional learning environment.

“We had decided to have a formal ceremony in which each student would present his/her book to the senior partner,” Bippus explained.  “First, one of our ESL students performed a Korean dance in a beautiful costume. Then each student and his/her partner were called to the front of the room. The student said a few words of thanks to the senior. It was very touching, and everyone in the room could feel the emotion. It was the perfect way to end the semester.”

Following the success of this Service Learning class, Bippus is repeating the effort this spring.

For information on Service Learning courses at LSC-CyFair, call 281-290-3289 or go to CyFair.LoneStar.edu/servicelearning.

This is the original story written by one of our instructors.
 

By Jan Petroni Brown,
ESOL Instructor Lone Star College-CyFair

     Sometimes the most valuable learning takes place outside the classroom and without a textbook in sight.  Such was the case when 13 international students – armed simply with  a notebook and pen, the willingness to really listen, and the universal language of compassion – signed on for a unique pilot program last spring at Lone Star College-CyFair.
     The brainchild of ESOL Associate Professor Sharon Bippus, the Service Learning class matches each student with an elderly resident of a local assisted-living center.  Through weekly interactions, students are afforded the opportunity to practice listening and speaking skills with the ultimate objective of writing the biography of his/her senior partner. While Bippus’ primary goal was to get her students out of the classroom and into the community, her decision to connect with older members of society seemed particularly apropos.
     “ESL students have a tendency to show a deep respect for the elderly because their cultures instill this in them,” she said.  “The opportunity to practice communication skills in such a non-threatening environment provided the key elements for a unique, positive learning experience. 
     “I wanted my students to feel confident that their English skills were good enough to allow them to be active members in their community.”

Traveling Back in Time

     Evelyn Romero went into the class expecting to practice her English. What she didn’t anticipate was such a vivid real-life lesson in American history and culture, in addition to the cherished bond she established with an 87-year-old woman named Birdell.
     “I got involved in her life and was able to travel to the past when she related her happy and sad stories,” said Evelyn, adding that she drew strength from Birdell’s remarkable stories of the Great Depression. Growing up in a country where most elderly live with family members, Evelyn was introduced to a component of American culture far different from that of her native El Salvador.
     “It’s rare to see people in these kinds of places in my country,” she said, adding that only “really poor people or abandoned people live in nursing homes.”
     The unlikely bond- between an Idaho-born farm girl and a Spanish speaking student 50 years her junior - was sparked by compassion. 
     “I think I felt her loneliness,” said Evelyn, whose empathy helped overcome communication obstacles—even beyond language barriers.
     With significant hearing loss and partially blind, Birdell’s disabilities created additional obstacles during the weekly interactions.  Evelyn would merely have to speak louder and could not rely on Birdell to write unfamiliar words.  The challenge was worth the extra effort, said Evelyn. From her stories in a one-room schoolhouse to her farmhouse with no electricity, Birdell had secured an attentive audience in her new friend.
     “The elderly are like a book with a lot of experience to share with others,” Evelyn  said.  “We just have to take the time to listen,” she added.

From “Comfort Zone” to “Real World”

     For Gloria Rico, a native of Colombia, developing that “listening ear” involved overcoming the jitters that hindered her initial hour-long meeting with “match,” Rodrigo.
     “I felt nervous, stupid and unsure,” she recalled.  “I was sweating – I felt my clothes getting wet, but I didn’t want to take off my jacket because I thought it inappropriate.”     
      Within the first few minutes of their conversation, Gloria was somewhat relieved to discover  that—like her husband- “Roddy” was a petroleum engineer by profession.  The native Ecuadorian was anxious to talk about his life and quickly seized the opportunity to communicate the easiest way for he and his partner - in Spanish.
     Gloria promptly, yet respectfully clarified the class objectives. 
     “I explained to him that speaking English would be the best goal for me in this project,” she said.  “Immediately he switched his language and I never heard another word in Spanish again.”
     From the first awkward meeting to countless hours of seeing life through Roddy’s eyes, Gloria felt privileged to share in his story.   There were the tearful moments, as Roddy shared the loss of his beloved wife to pancreatic cancer in 1994.    And there were moments of pride, as the great-grandfather displayed his cherished photos of family weddings and birthday celebrations. It was becoming increasingly apparent that the class had evolved into something quite different from Gloria’s original motivation to simply improve her English skills.  And yet, the quality of learning couldn’t have been more effective, according to Gloria, adding that the “best way to learn is in the real world.”
     “You can learn from books or other tools, but you can understand others best when you live through their experiences.”
      However, the project did require a courageous move out of the comfort zone Gloria had developed through her two years of classes at LSC-CyFair.
     “In my classes, I feel more secure because I am a student. I can ask questions and make mistakes with grammar and pronunciation. Outside class- in the real world- you do not have that license to make mistakes.”
     Reflecting back on the experience, Gloria credits Roddy and her instructor, whom she has dubbed her “bird parents.”
     “They gave me the wings to fly outside of LSC-CyFair.”
     Bippus echoes that sentiment as she expresses her pride in those students who took part in the pilot course, despite the uncertainty of the class expectations.
     “They demonstrated such courage in participating in a class that forced them to leave the safe,  secure walls of the ESL classroom.  And they worked so hard to produce books about their partners that showed great dedication and creativity.  They truly set the standard for all my future classes.”

A Heart for Both Young and Old

     Miyoung Han, a Korean international student, was willing to accept that challenge. The 24-year-old,  who dreams of becoming a special education teacher in the United States, jumped at the opportunity to participate in a Service Learning class. However, she wasn’t content to wait until spring semester to get involved.  When an e-mail was circulated over winter break recruiting volunteers to help serve Christmas dinner to the elderly, one student showed up eager to help.  Three hours later, Miyoung had declared the experience her “best memory of 2008.”
     “I couldn’t stop smiling because they made me so happy,” she beamed.  “They were such kind and warmhearted people.”
     While she foresees herself surrounded by young children in her profession, Miyoung has reserved a special place in her heart for the elderly.  The death of her grandfather, who was living with her family at the time, left a painful void in her life.
     “He was my best friend and greatest supporter,” she said.  “We made a lot of memories together. Although we didn’t talk much, he understood me in every way.”
     Through this class, Miyoung hopes to be a “real friend and family for people who need help.”
     As Miyoung and her fellow students are introduced to the guidelines and objectives for the semester, they await one important event with excitement and a note of apprehension.  That moment, when each resident reaches into the paper sack to draw a name of his/her match,  which is still vivid in Gloria’s memory.
     “I could feel the accelerated rhythm of my heart,” she recalled.  “It was the same feeling as when the roller coaster goes up and up, and you are sure the fall is coming.”
     While the initial introduction was met with a bit of anxiety for most of  Bippus’ students,  the final day of class was marked with emotion rarely displayed in a traditional learning environment.
     “We had decided to have a formal ceremony in which each student would present his/her book to the senior partner,” she explained.  “First, one of our ESL students performed a Korean dance in a beautiful costume.  Then each student and his/her partner were called to the front of the room.  The student said a few words of thanks to the senior.  It was very touching, and everyone in the room could feel the emotion.  It was the perfect way to end the semester.”

For information on Service Learning at LSC-CyFair, go to Cyfair.LoneStar.edu/servicelearning.