Wisconsin Idea: UW–Madison language learners assist high school students

Morgan Haefner, of Appleton, and Marcus Amato, of Oshkosh, both studied Spanish in middle and high school. Both arrived at the University of Wisconsin–Madison looking for a new language to learn, and both chose Arabic.

Haefner says she “simply went down the list of languages and landed on Arabic. Little did I know what studying the language would mean to me.”

“When I first started, I was interested in Arabic because it seemed vastly different from anything I had studied before,” Amato say, “but after learning the alphabet and the writing system, all of that opacity fell away, revealing a language that is very approachable and fun to learn.”

Gaochsia Xiong and Aiyzah Javaid started studying Japanese as high school students in Eau Claire, and continued their language studies at UW–Madison.

“I had always been interested in the Japanese culture due to watching anime (Japanese cartoons) during my childhood, so I decided to learn it,” says Javaid, who is originally from Pakistan. “Then once I started learning it, I realized I loved it, and I was hooked.”

Xiong took up Japanese to follow in the footsteps of her older sisters. “I thought I would be able to take it and ease through it with the help and knowledge of my sisters.”

Cheyenne Vaughn, of Jackson, Missouri, also had developed an interest in Japanese culture. So, for her freshman year at UW–Madison, she enrolled in a First-year Interest Group (FIG) “about Japanese pop culture and one of the classes was first-semester Japanese. I fell in love with the language.”

This year, these five language learners are sharing their knowledge and passion by tutoring students in three Wisconsin high schools, through videoconferencing and in person. They are among eight UW–Madison undergraduates involved connected through UW–Madison’s Language Institute with language programs at Madison East, Manitowoc Lincoln, and Plymouth high schools.

Manitowoc Lincoln High School offers three levels of Japanese with a dedicated teacher in that language. The Facilitated Language Study program developed at Madison East and adopted by Plymouth High School enables high school students to independently study a language not traditionally offered at the high school level – currently Japanese and Arabic – under the guidance of a certified teacher of a different world language.

“This is an innovative approach in that it is teacher-guided and student-driven,” says French teacher Claudine Clark, who oversees the program at East.

Initially, East recruited volunteer tutors from the community, Clark says. “In September 2014, Wendy Johnson at UW–Madison became aware of our need, and contacted me to see how the Language Institute could help, and we developed this partnership.”

“The tutoring program gives UW–Madison students the opportunity to put to use the language they’ve invested so much in,” says Johnson, assistant director of the Language Institute. “I find that the students who volunteer for this opportunity are simply eager to share their hard-earned knowledge about Japanese and Arabic language and culture with their younger peers, who are just getting started with the language.”

The tutors connect with the high school students once a week for conversation practice and to provide information about culture, along with study tips.

“Beyond personal fulfillment, the student tutors gain valuable experience for their future careers,” Johnson says. “Several of the student tutors in this program have indicated an interest in teaching after graduation. More broadly, though, all of the student tutors gain valuable practice in leadership and mentoring that might apply to their future careers no matter what they go in to.”

Five of the UW–Madison students talk about what led them to volunteer, their tutoring experiences and what they’ve gained:

Morgan Haefner

“Last semester was the first semester of my undergraduate career that I didn’t take an Arabic course,” says Haefner, a senior majoring in journalism and religious studies. “I wanted to continue my language proficiency, so I decided to join the tutoring program to help keep my language skills up, and help local students.”

“I really enjoy the fact that the students are guiding their own lesson plans,” says Haefner. “That way, they are learning language they feel is useful to them. I also enjoy seeing the students progress in their language development.”

Five students are currently studying Arabic at Madison East. Haefner has been surprised by what motivates them.

“Some are first- and second-generation immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. Others are Muslim and wish to learn how to read Arabic script. Their interests vary, but it’s cool to see them reaching for their own personal goals instead of a school requirement.”

For Haefner, working with local high school students “helped widen my definition of Madison and burst my campus bubble. Tutoring also helped me with my own Arabic language skills, especially fine-tuning certain grammar rules.”

Marcus Amato

Amato, a linguistics and African Languages and Literature (focusing on Arabic) major set to graduate May, returned to campus this semester after studying last fall in Morocco.

“I lived with a host family in the Old Medina of Fez, Morocco and studied Arabic and Moroccan culture at the American Language Center in Fez. It was the experience of a lifetime and I look forward to the day I can go back.”

He cites this experience as inspiration for getting involved in the tutoring program. He learned about the program from Haefner, and has joined her in tutoring students at Madison East.

“While abroad I decided that I wanted to teach English in the Arab world after finishing my undergraduate degrees. To make that goal a reality, I started looking into ways to gain teaching experience via tutoring language.”

He adds, “Once I heard that there was a way to both gain teaching experience, as well as assist young language learners, I was eager to get involved. It’s a wonderful opportunity, from which all parties benefit.”

During a typical session, he meets individually, for about 25 minutes each, with two students, who are responsible for directing their own path of study.

“Working with students who possess that self-directed attitude has been one of the most enjoyable parts of this experience,” Amato says. “These are no ordinary high school language students, slogging their way through Spanish or French class because they have to be there. These students have a personal connection to the language and put in the extra effort to achieve their goals.”

Cheyenne Vaughn

Vaughn, a sophomore majoring in Japanese and working toward a certificate in Teaching English as a Second Language, heard about the program from her Japanese professor. “I have wanted to tutor for a while, to gain some experience and volunteering hours, and I thought this would be a great opportunity.”

She enjoys teaching students about an unfamiliar culture and language and watching their progress.  She tutored four students during the fall semester and has continued to work with two of them.

“I live for those ‘ah-ha’ moments when one of my students finally understands new grammar or is able to make connections between new material they are learning with the old material.”

Vaughn has been most surprised by students’ willingness to learn Japanese and how they think about the language. “They always ask me questions that take me off guard, and I think to myself, ‘I never really thought about how that works.’”

She adds, “At first when I started tutoring, I was worried that the students I had might be unwilling to learn the language and would give up if they did not understand a concept, because Japanese is so different from English. However, they proved me wrong and are super enthusiastic about learning the language.”

She views her experience with an eye toward the future.

“This experience in teaching students allows me to see what works and what does not,” she says. “After graduating college, I am planning to apply to a program such as JET, where I will be teaching English in Japan. Through tutoring, I am obtaining essential skills that I will need in the future to be a successful teacher.”

Aiyzah Javaid

“Learning a language in high school is very important, and can even help guide a person to their career in future,” says Javaid, a junior majoring in biology and working toward a certificate in Japanese. “I loved learning Japanese in high school. I want other students who don’t have the same opportunities I did to still be able to learn a foreign language.”

“I enjoy working with students who are enthusiastic about learning Japanese,” she says. “This makes me feel like I am actually helping the students, that they really are learning the language, and that they are enjoying themselves as they learn.”

She has tutored more than 10 students thus far, usually working with two per session. “The program is set up to help as many students as possible, and so we try to help every student practice the language, and try to give them all a chance to ask questions.”

She enjoys bonding with the students. “They ask me lots of questions, and we have healthy discussions while I tutor them. It is fun to talk to them, joke with them, and help them learn. I thought tutoring via Skype would be difficult, but it has been surprisingly easy.”

Tutoring, she says, “is helping me learn how to work with different people, which is a useful skill for the future, and for the workforce. It also allows me to give back to the community, and helps me practice using my Japanese skills.”

Gaochsia Xiong

Xiong, a senior majoring in Japanese, became a tutor “because I admired that there were students doing self-study all because their schools could not provide a class for the language they wanted to study.”

“I am glad that I can be a resource for the students and give them some guidance in their study,” says Xiong, who has worked with three students. “I am still truly surprised by the determination students have to start learning a language by themselves and how they have a strong will to keep learning the language.”

She says, “This experience has taught me my strengths and weaknesses in regards to the language that I am tutoring. It also has surprised me about how these school districts are supporting students who choose to learn less popular languages.”

She adds, “I am thankful that I was able to start studying Japanese in high school.”

Xiong, who hopes to teach English in Japan, sees tutoring “as a wonderful experience to observe myself in teaching.”

— by Kerry G. Hill