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Empowering Students in a Second Language


“I see service-learning as an avenue for empowering students. Real change, sustainable change, happens one person at a time. Well implemented service-learning projects will address needs of each participant.”
—Participant at CWI's Summer Institute on Service-Learning

ProjectIt was hours before the performance, and I was already nervous for my students. Did they bring in the items they said they would? Are they ready to be productive?  Luckily, when my students arrived at school, they were prepared in ways I didn’t think were possible.

Today my 5th and 6th graders would teach the community about two Spanish Christmas traditions with a skit at lunch. Las Posadas, is a tradition reenacting Mary and Joseph’s journey to find lodging. 3 Kings Day celebrates the journey the Wise Men took to give gifts to Jesus. 

As we started practicing, I did a quick headcount. To everyone’s surprise, our innkeeper was absent. We huddled and asked each other who would feel comfortable taking the role of this character. It was amazing that one student volunteered for this because earlier in the year he did not have that same self-confidence.   

Just when I thought we solved everything, in walked our school principal with another dilemma. We could no longer use the costumes we have practiced with because of a lice breakout.  However, we worked together creatively to make last minute articles of clothing using sheets.

With only twenty minutes to practice, I explained to students that the show must go on.  We practiced the skit and everyone felt confident that it would run successfully.

Over the next few hours, I didn’t worry about the event because I needed to teach another class. That was until a teacher handed me a note and said she would take over class for me. Puzzled, I read it, which said that more 5th and 6th graders went home. It also said don’t worry.  The kids solved it themselves.

Don’t worry? How could I not worry? Community members were already arriving for this event and I had no clue what was going on! Still, I took a deep breath and waited patiently for my students to come to the lunchroom.

While waiting, I thought about the note again. Then it hit me. My students must have learned and applied the skills I had been teaching them all year. They felt empowered to solve this problem themselves and I looked forward to our post reflection to find out how it happened. My attitude began to change, and I started to anticipate how my students would perform.

When my students performed for the community, it went very successfully. I noticed they were helping each other with lines and went on with the show as if nothing happened. Like one participant said, “it’s a combination of helping people and learning.”

My students reflected on solving the problem in class, and everyone was eager to express their thoughts. They explained how students initiated other members to step up to be part of the skit and got entire class approval. Then, students practiced with each other to make sure these participants felt comfortable. Also during the reflection, the class came up with the idea of having understudies if we were to do another play, just in case main characters are absent again. I realized they were thinking about how to change for next time, taking control over their learning.  

How did my students become empowered though?  Since the beginning of the year, I encouraged these students to take an active role in their Spanish class. Service-learning became the vehicle that helped drive these students into action.

ProjectService-learning is an intentional teaching strategy that helps students to meet academic goals and a community need. It requires student voice and participation with ongoing reflection and celebration. When I attended Community Works’ Summer Institute on Service-Learning, I embraced this idea and began to plan a new and improved Spanish curriculum to share with my students.

How could I empower my students to come up with the plan I developed at the institute? We first started with an understanding of the essential components of service-learning. Simultaneously, my class needed to know both our Spanish curriculum goals and determine a need for our community. With such young learners, this involved a lot of brainstorming, engagement and a simpler vocabulary. 

I realized that these young learners were capable of doing this, and just needed the opportunity to become active participants in their learning. In September, my students mapped out their school year based on a list (including holidays, numbers, school and food vocabulary, etc…) I compiled to give them ownership over when they wanted to learn everything.  Students shared when it would be best to learn certain material and why they felt that way. Although this process took a week, my students felt prepared and focused to learn. One student reflected, “I raised my hand and shared. I felt good to be deciding when we were going to learn things.”


After creating this map my students and I thought about the role of our school community. Through sharing ideas with each other, students felt the community should be involved in our learning. They felt community members could benefit from learning more about our Spanish program, since it is unique to Harrisville, and that they could teach them about Spanish culture and language this year.  Students listed how we could meet our Spanish goals and teach the community together. Even though there were many great ideas, students decided to teach a topic that provided enough preparation time.  It is important to allow enough preparation time with service-learning because the students would be in charge of it all.

ProjectSince it was October students wanted to plan an event for November. They decided to teach the community about the Mexican tradition of Day of the Dead, celebrated on November 2nd. Even though I wanted my students to go to a nearby cemetery to teach this topic, I knew they needed to come up with the location themselves.  As a facilitator I encouraged students to brainstorm their ideas about how to teach this tradition and wrote them down on the board.  It was interesting that my students found ways to connect ideas with others and valued everyone’s opinion. It was important to provide enough time because all participants needed to feel involved in the process in order to have a successful product.

Students narrowed down choices by voting and were interested in publicizing for a Day of the Dead event at the Harrisville Riverside Cemetery. They asked if I could provide them with class time for this project and of course I agreed. The class divided into teams for specific activities based on their interests. One individual called the Cemetery Trustee to get permission to use the grounds and asked if she could attend to provide a little history about the cemetery. Meanwhile, a group of students created a bilingual skit to capture the significance behind the tradition. Other students researched the use of altars and constructed two wooden ones for the skit. Many students worked on publicity. Everyone researched the tradition and Spanish vocabulary to help describe it, and they could all answer questions I asked them in both English and Spanish.

After weeks of productive class time, November 2nd arrived and my students were prepared to share their knowledge with the community. We walked to the nearby cemetery, and students performed the skit they rehearsed. They led a sharing activity that answered the questions I tested them on earlier. We reflected on the memory of those who had passed away in our lives. One community member embraced the celebration and said, “the activity brought meaning with sharing.” 

ProjectSoon after this first project, my students reflected on what could remain the same or change for our next project. Again, students shared their ideas because they wanted to be involved in the process. They reflected on the event feeling pleased with the overall performance but wanted to publicize more. This reflection also led into a brainstorm of when is the best time to have a community event. Students decided lunch, which resulted in the time of the Christmas skit performance.

Soon after that performance, I noticed my students really became the leaders and were motivated to want to teach more to the community. They commented on how great it feels to have an audience care about their Spanish learning. Students were committed to working hard and taking pride in everyone’s work. They became a collaborative community. 

“My vision is where everyone practices hard, a lot of the community comes, and the community learns a lot.”
Project Participant

Throughout the year, these same students continued to take control over their learning by planning and teaching the community at both a Mexican and a school wide Spanish Curriculum Night. I realized I could challenge my students to learn the Spanish language and culture by teaching it to the community, and that this can happen in any foreign language class. Service-learning became a manageable approach to help empower my students. At the end of the year one student said, “I feel that it was really fun doing all those projects this year. It makes learning Spanish easier because you can apply it better.” I hope more teachers are able to use this strategy to promote student empowerment in their own classes so students can make a similar connection of their own. 

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