Learning with a hands-on approach

Douglas Rojas

When a Vietnamese student just learning to speak English asked second-year student Jayme Tichauer what a word meant, Tichauer wondered how she could possibly explain it.
“How do you explain the word ‘word’ to a student who is learning English?” said Tichauer, working her first day as an English as a Second Language tutor at the Brian Coyle Center on the West Bank.
Tichauer, a psychology student, volunteers two nights a week at this community center helping non-native speakers of English improve their language skills. This activity is part of her Introduction to Sociology class.
“It is a really different experience (teaching ESL) because you get to work with immigrants and refugees,” she said.
Students enrolled in the class must volunteer for 20 hours of community work this quarter. The purpose is for students to study sociology by looking at real social settings.
“It’s an eye opener,” said Tichauer. “Exposure to different cultural groups and backgrounds enhances people’s education,” she said. “I learned a lot from the people.”
Through the community service program, the students are exposed to cultural differences between racial and ethnic groups, social classes and to problems of homelessness, said Professor Jeffrey Broadbent.
“Based upon their experience, they have to explain that social reality using sociology concepts,” he said.
The program also expects students to continue their community work once the class is over, Broadbent said.
Students in the class were given about 15 different community centers to choose from, including the Simpson Housing Services, a homeless shelter, and Wilder Elementary School, where students help children improve their reading skills.
Crystal Brinkman, a second-year student in elementary education, volunteered at the Simpson shelter. She said the experience broke down stereotypes for her and helped her understand the complex issue of homelessness.
“It was a good way to get rid of some myths about homeless people,” she said. Perceptions that homeless people are either alcoholics or mentally ill simply didn’t hold at all, she said.
Brinkman once spent the night at the shelter. She said that through conversation, she was really able to get to know the people at the shelter. She also said she was surprised at how interesting the people were and by the interest the homeless people took in her life and her academic goals.
“They asked a lot of questions,” she said. “They really liked to talk.”
At the school, sophomore Allison Begel helps first-graders and second-graders overcome their reading difficulties. During each one-hour session with each grade, she meets with students individually, and they read and work on pronunciation and spelling.
“They usually pick up the story they read the best,” said Begel, a second-year student in sociology. “It’s fun to see their faces when they get a word right.”
Being able to work with a diverse group of students is demanding, Begel said, but helping them learn new words and improve their reading skills is a rewarding job because she is making an impact on their lives.
The Early Intervention Program, a sequence of steps intended to enhance a student’s reading skills, has been used at Wilder Elementary School for about seven years. Developed by University Professor Barbara Taylor, the program has been praised as an effective way to overcome reading difficulties, said Carolyn Gwinn, a graduate student in education working as a teacher at Wilder School.
Students from the sociology class working with first-graders and second-graders make the program more effective, Gwinn said. “One-on-one training sessions has made the program really successful,” she said.
Out of 180 students taking the class, approximately 130 are currently doing community work. Students meet Fridays to discuss their work experiences, connecting those events to what they learn in class. The recitations are led by undergraduate teaching assistants who are completing sociology degrees.
“We encourage them to do something they are interested in,” said Rachel Skovholt, a fourth-year sociology student and a teaching assistant for the class.
The Office for Special Learning Opportunities arranged the contacts between the community centers and the students in the class. The community centers offered students special training.