Fairfield University assistant teaching program for foreign languages reaps rewards for students and teachers alike


Image: Xiomara MoralesTrumbull High School teacher Xiomara Morales builds props, dresses up, draws pictures and acts things out in the course of her class.

But her antics aren't part of a course on theatre and drama. They're techniques she learned and perfected at Fairfield University, for teaching students another language.

Morales, who graduated from Fairfield University in 2000, worked for two years as an assistant teacher (AT) in the Oral Practice Session Program of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures (DMLL) at Fairfield University. Her experience in that program helped to put her at ease when teaching older students - and enabled her to let inhibitions go when she throws herself into active teaching. "I think the experience made me more comfortable in front of a group more advanced in age," Morales said of the AT/OPS, noting that many of her Fairfield University students were older than she was at the time.

While Fairfield does not utilize teaching assistants for actual classes, the DMLL relies on peer student teachers to conduct special oral practice sessions that language students are encouraged to attend. The AT/OPS Program has proven to be a success, not just for students practicing how to speak another language, but for the student assistant teachers who are training them, said Joel Goldfield, Ph.D., director of the Charles E. Culpeper Language Resource Center at Fairfield University.

"It is extremely satisfying to see students open themselves up to other cultures through the active learning of a language," said AT Carol Chiodo, of Weston, Conn., a student of University College at Fairfield University. Chiodo sees the program as a gratifying opportunity to share both her love of language and culture. "Through the dramatic immersion in a foreign language, the OPS forces students to extend their minds well beyond the mechanics of the language and embrace its cultural context as well - something normally experienced only through a prolonged visit abroad."

The program was borne out of the need to give language students more oral practice in their new language, said Dr. Goldfield, who is also an associate professor of Modern Languages and Literatures at Fairfield.

"There's no way most college students can effectively supervise their own oral practice," Dr. Goldfield said. But such practice is necessary for learning how to speak a language properly - as opposed to just writing and reading, although these goals are important. Eighty percent of students consider speaking a language their number one goal in taking foreign language courses, according to student surveys at Fairfield University, Dr. Goldfield said.

The AT/OPS program, which began in the spring of 1998 as a pilot in French only, has blossomed to include eight of the nine languages offered at Fairfield. And while students are able to hone their oral techniques, more advanced students get hands-on teaching experience with an adult class. Each language's ATs are supervised by departmental faculty specially trained for that additional work.

Morales knew from the start that she wanted to be a teacher. But the AT/OPS assistant teaching experience encourages many undecided students to become foreign language teachers, Dr. Goldfield said, noting that by the end of the program, 80 percent of participants say they are interested in pursuing teaching.

That's good news for Connecticut schools, which are often in need of foreign language teachers, according to Mary Ann Hansen, Ph.D., the world languages consultant for the Connecticut Department of Education. The state has turned to partnerships with other nations, such as Spain, to recruit teachers from overseas, said Dr. Hansen.

"We have had a shortage of Spanish teachers for a number of years," Dr. Hansen said, adding that French and Italian teachers are also becoming difficult to find.

Students who are chosen for the paid positions attend a workshop to receive 14 hours of training. Those who want to be ATs in the Fairfield University program must (re)audition each year. A jury of faculty selects ATs based on merit and availability. The ATs evaluate the students in their sessions, although they do not grade them, Dr. Goldfield said. This semester, Fairfield has about 20 ATs. On average, 30 percent of the ATs who participate in the program are international students, Dr. Goldfield said. Many ATs, such as Morales, are native speakers in the language in which they will be teaching.

"The success of Fairfield's Assistant Teaching/Oral Practice Session Program comes from long-standing and emerging intellectual traditions, forged through the immense energy and talent of Professor Joel Goldfield," said Timothy Law Snyder, Ph.D., dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Fairfield University. "He is joined by similarly engaged colleagues of the College of Arts and Science's Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, who understand the value of language and the literary and cultural worlds that it opens to modern leaders and learners."

In addition to gaining teaching experience at Fairfield University, Morales learned the Rassias Method for teaching a foreign language. Named for its creator, John Rassias, president of The Rassias Foundation at Dartmouth and chair of the college's Department of French and Italian, the method calls for physical demonstrations to teach students vocabulary in a different language. By doing so, the method eliminates the need to translate a new word into the equivalent word in students' native tongue. Translating a new word into the equivalent word in the students' native tongue would substantially slow down communication, Dr. Goldfield said. The dramatized and direct approach taken in the AT/OPS Program accelerates students' ability to communicate orally in the new language, Dr. Goldfield said, adding that there is an element of humor and playfulness in the method to put students more at ease.

The method ingrains the new language in students' heads, Morales said. It's also a very energetic and active way of teaching. Morales will act out a word, say the word in Spanish, and then quickly point to students, who must identify and repeat the word she is demonstrating. "When I point at you, you better repeat what I said and you better repeat it correctly," Morales said, laughing. "It keeps everybody on their toes."

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on April 7, 2003

Vol. 35, No. 236