This news release is one I put together back in 2003. I couldn’t find a copy of it online, so I’m posting this in case anyone is interested. I found this panel enormously interesting because all of these classes were very small and each of the faculty members had a different approach to their instruction.
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Photo: From left to right: Dr. Hodjaev, Dr. Holdeman, Prof. Sobrer, Associate Prof. Omar (Photo courtesy of Irma Alarcon).
A panel of IU faculty members gathered on November 8, 2003, to share individual approaches to some common challenges of teaching small classes. Although we often hear about innovative ways of teaching large classes, small specialized classes also require flexibility and creativity on the part of the teacher. The four panelists came from different departments and taught four different languages — Catalan, Swahili, Uzbek, and Russian. After the exchange, the panelists agreed that they learned as much as the audience, and all involved look forward to the next opportunity to share teaching strategies.
Professor Josep Sobrer, who teaches Catalan in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, finds innovative course resources during his visits to Catalonia. Catalan is a language centered in Barcelona and Catalonia, with only eight million people in the world who speak the language. Though instructional materials can be scarce, Professor Sobrer supplements his classes with a Catalan language instruction program on CD-ROM and with Catalan versions of popular American movies. These resources allow his students to immerse themselves in the everyday applications of the language. Professor Sobrer teaches Catalan whenever a cohort of five to ten students is interested in the language.
Associate Professor Aliwaya Omar, who teaches Swahili and other languages in the Linguistics Department & the African Studies Program, supervises peer instructors in more specialized languages such as Luo, Tigrinya, and Moroccan Arabic. When a student wants to learn a language like these, usually for a research trip to Africa, she matches the student with a native speaker on campus and gives brief pedagogical instruction to the native speaker. The peer instructor then customizes the lessons to the contextual and research needs of the student. This intensive program is made possible by Title VI funding, primarily Foreign Language Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships received by the students. Associate Professor Omar also teaches Swahili, with enrollments of up to nineteen students, and supervises regular classes in Twi, Hausa, and Bambara.
Dr. Malik Hodjaev, a visiting lecturer teaching Uzbek for the Department of Central Eurasian Studies, must develop his own course materials for this little-taught language. Before coming to the U.S., Dr. Hodjaev visited colleges and universities in Uzbekistan, trying unsuccessfully to locate resources for teaching Uzbek to Americans. His search was made more difficult because Uzbekistan has changed alphabets five times in the last two hundred years. They used an Arabic script from the 14th century to 1927, when it was replaced by a Latin alphabet. The Latin alphabet was in turn replaced by Cyrillic in 1940. In 1992, the Latin alphabet began to make a comeback, and in 1993 an alphabet based on typographic symbols emerged. In 2005, the Latin alphabet will again be the official alphabet of Uzbekistan, but in the meantime, many teaching resources use only Cyrillic. As a result, Dr. Hodjaev is concurrently developing course materials in both Latin and Cyrillic alphabets for the three levels of Uzbek he teaches.
Dr. Jeffrey Holdeman is the Slavic Language Coordinator in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and is currently teaching Russian. He is working to build student enrollments and retention rates in Slavic language classes by developing a multi-faceted strategy combining program development, analysis of trends in student demographics, extra-curricular activities, instructor-training, advertising, and outreach. Like some of his colleagues, he finds resource materials scarce for some languages, such as Polish and Serbian-Croatian. He is working with the AIs in these languages to compile bibliographies and materials and to present these to colleagues at national conventions. Dr. Holdeman also uses electronic discussion groups, such as SEELangs (http://home.attbi.com/~lists/seelangs), to ask questions, share resources with other instructors, and combat the isolation felt by instructors of less commonly taught languages.
These four faculty members agree that the importance of teacher-student relationships is magnified in small classes. Instructors often need to respond to the strengths and weaknesses of particular students in designing syllabi and pacing the content. For example, student needs largely shape the content of the course in the one-on-one African languages courses. Instructors tailor these syllabi to concentrate on the specialized research contexts in which the languages will be used (reading or speaking, specialized vocabulary, etc.).
Relationships among students and differences in their preparation are also magnified in small classes. For example, a single language class may enroll novice undergraduate learners, heritage learners (students raised in households where the studied language is spoken), and graduate students (who may have advanced learning skills but little content knowledge). Both heritage learners and graduate students will often demand greater content than the novice learners can handle. Dr. Holdeman provides these more advanced learners with further material on the cultural context of the language, allowing them to deepen their understanding of the language without disrupting the level of conversation within class.