As the music begins, the room full of Unity youth comes to attention and everyone excitedly joins in.
“¡Buenas tardes! ¡Buenas tardes! ¡Buenas tardes! ¡Qué bonita tarde!”
This afternoon’s lesson of the World Languages program is on Nicaragua. The students are learning Spanish through immersion while they also learn about Nicaragua’s flag, capital, and climate.
The teachers, however, are learners, too.
The World Languages program at University of Illinois Extension’s Unity Community Center in Normal, Illinois, developed out of a partnership with the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Illinois State University. The teachers working with the youth at Unity are Illinois State students enrolled in LAN 320: World Language Teaching in the K–12 Setting.
Each Thursday evening, the Illinois State students interact with the Unity youth during snack time, building relationships. Then, everyone moves into reading circles or language lessons. Following the lessons, the Illinois State students return to campus to reflect on and discuss their teaching experience that evening.
The Illinois State students take turns leading the World Languages lessons in the specific language in which they are majoring. Of the seven students currently enrolled in LAN 320, six are majoring in Spanish and one is majoring in German. In the previous semesters, students majoring in French also participated in the program.
Illinois State Professor Susan Hildebrandt started the afterschool program in 2011 to give her students an opportunity to teach young learners. “Since they will be eligible for a K–12 teaching license, I needed to prepare them for all levels, and without many local schools that offer second language classes, Unity was a good fit,” said Hildebrandt, who is a professor of applied linguistics and Spanish.
Hildebrandt also sought to fill a need in the community for this type of program. “Some of my early Illinois State students worked at Unity and shared with me their need for high-quality programming and linguistic support. With that knowledge, I started a dialogue with the personnel at the center, and we determined what the needs of the various stakeholders were and how those needs could be met.”
A Scholarship of Teaching and Learning University Research Grant provided Hildebrandt with the necessary resources to begin the program. “Over the years, we have refined the schedule, our approach, and activities to make a better and better experience for Unity youth and my students,” Hildebrandt said.
Unity Community Center staff members appreciate Hildebrandt’s flexibility and dedication to the program. “Just the way she’s kept the partnership going and strengthened it in different ways and helped us to find new connections, it’s really showed us what a good partnership can look like,” said Elizabeth Repplinger, Extension program coordinator at Unity.
Hildebrandt and the World Languages program were even among those honored on November 13 during the Unity Gives Back dinner and awards ceremony. Unity holds the event annually to thank their community partners and volunteers.
In addition to teaching the World Languages program for ten semesters, Hildebrandt has raised funds for Unity to purchase bookcases and additional books in languages other than English. She was also instrumental in developing world language programming with other professors at Unity during semesters when she is not teaching LAN 320.
Additionally, Hildebrandt encourages her students to volunteer at Unity outside of class, so they can earn additional clinical hours and engage with the youth. “The program is unique in the way that (Hildebrandt) would allow her students to come and get to know the students before they teach,” said Afiwa Tete, extension program coordinator at Unity. “That way they built that rapport with the students, which makes it a whole lot easier to teach, because they already have that connection.”
Emma Grochowski, a senior majoring in Spanish teacher education, participates in the afterschool program and also volunteers at Unity. Her biggest takeaway from this experience has been engaging with the community and giving back, in her case, by teaching Spanish.
“I don’t go to Unity only on the days that we go as a class,” Grochowski continued. “I go other days of the week because I truly have made connections with the kids and want to be there and further those relationships. Not only does that help me as their educator, but as a role model that they can look up to.”
The students at Unity have definitely been benefiting from the program. Unity is a multicultural community center with programming for youth from 5 to 18 years old. Typically around twenty to twenty-five young learners at Unity participate in World Languages each week. Older students at Unity use the afterschool time for homework.
Hildebrandt, Repplinger, and Tete all noted that they’ve seen Unity students retain and build upon their world language skills over the years. The students especially remember the opening and closing songs.
The interactions with Illinois State students and the opportunity to learn other languages have also provided valuable experience to the Unity youth. “It has allowed our children to have diversity, and to be aware when they meet a new person,” said Tete. “They do understand that we all come from different places. We all speak different languages. And they would have something in common with that person.”
The program has been a great educational experience for the Illinois State students as well. “My students have gotten to have a collective teaching experience, in which they learn how to effectively co-teach, while at Unity,” Hildebrandt said. “They have also been able to reflect on the experience as a group immediately after teaching and build community while supporting each other to become better teachers.
“They have grown as teachers of young learners and gained experiences they wouldn’t have had otherwise, were it not for this program.”
Angelica Hernandez, a senior majoring in Spanish teacher education, participates in Hildebrandt’s program: “During my time at Unity, I have learned a lot about patience. This is my first time working with children under 15 years old, so it definitely has been a learning experience. However, I really learned how smart these students are and how much they absorb when learning a new language.”
Hernandez also volunteers at Unity Community Center outside of the afterschool program. The proximity to campus and her connections with Unity youth have made her feel more connected to the community. The experience has also confirmed her choice of major at Illinois State. “The joy and excitement of the students when we walk in really hammered in that I am in the right major, and being able to teach children a new language while creating close relationships with them is so rewarding.”
According to Grochowski, “Every time I go to Unity, I leave with a smile because those kids make my day so much better.”