Oberlin Blogs

Why are you here and what do you want to learn?

November 8, 2012

Barbara Sawhill

Unlike at other schools elsewhere in the country, the study of languages and cultures is alive and thriving here at Oberlin. As the Director of the Cooper International Learning Center I provide resources and pedagogical support for faculty and students who teach and study the languages we offer here. Those languages are (deep inhale): Arabic, Chinese, ESL, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Russian and Spanish.

But those are just the courses we offer formally. Via the Experimental College and thanks to the talents of their teachers, there have been courses in Korean, Swahili, Cantonese, Persian...even Klingon.

What I have always found remarkable is the fact that no one here has to take a language and yet many of classes are full...with waiting lists. Unlike places where I have taught before, there is no language requirement at Oberlin. For teachers that is a joyful thing: no longer do we have to worry about teaching the disinterested masses while they endure yet another conjugation in order to complete the requirement. Rather, we have students, many students, in fact lots of students, taking placement tests (sometimes multiple placement tests)... eager to find a language class in which they can continue their language study post high school, or start something new.

So with all that enthusiasm and creativity and eagerness to learn languages, I thought, it would follow that Obies would come to a language class with a mission, a drive, and with a plan to use their language skills in concrete ways. I thought that if they were asked "why are you here and what do you want to learn?" they would be able to answer in a heartbeat.

The reality, I have found, has been quite different. In fact, I have found that many Obies find these questions scary. No one up until now has asked them that question, and most certainly that was never something that was asked in a language class. "Isn't that supposed to be the role of the teacher?" they ask, "to tell me what I have to learn and why I need to learn it?"

Indeed, that is how many language teachers throughout history have approached the teaching of languages... that students are empty vessels needing to be filled with professorial wonderfulness. Indeed language professionals have much to share, but we also have so much we can learn from our students, so much that they bring to their learning. It has always seemed foolish (and wasteful) to me that we don't figure out a way to incorporate some of that to the classroom and to their learning.

"Why are you here and what do you want to learn?"

When my students finally understand that yes, their interests and dreams do matter, the answers I have received from my students have been remarkable. Their reasons for wanting to learn the language have ranged from being able to speak with heritage speaking grandparents to WWOOFing in Latin America, from applying for a grant to be a midwife in Bolivia to teaching ESL to Immigrant Workers Project (IWP) here in Ohio. From studying Spanish pop music and learning the necessary vocabulary in order to have a detailed conversation with a Spanish speaker about the artists (vs just "me gusta") to food blogging about yummy treats either eaten elsewhere or prepared with friends. The list goes on and on.

Remember the time when you had to write a paper but the topic was chosen by the teacher? Yeah, that wasn't so much fun. Remember the time you got to write a paper for that same teacher...but you got to decide what you wanted to write about? That paper could write itself. It is the same thing, I have found, with student-created project-based learning. When students find topics that resonate with their own personal interests, they invest... the learning simply explodes.

Do my students learn everything they need to know in the 16 short weeks we have together? Oh heck no. If anything, every student comes to the realization that there is so much more to learn, and in fact many continue along that path once the semester is over.

I think one student said it best. She said, "Learning [in this class, and at Oberlin] is not about finding all of the answers. Actually, it is about figuring out how to ask really good questions."

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