Languages beyond University: A course offering community engagement in local schools for academic credit

Photo credit: Annette Götzkes.

In this post, Annette Götzkes, a Senior Teaching Fellow in German Studies, presents a new credited course, Language Beyond University, that she designed along with Dr Simon Riley… 

For several years, the Department of European Languages and Cultures have been supporting first and second year university students to undertake extra-curricular activities in local Edinburgh secondary schools, offering classes of pupils an extra level of cultural experience surrounding the language being taught. Our students get an opportunity to volunteer and give something back, perhaps even into their own high school. However, there have been challenges for our students to participate fully with this extra-curricular activity because of the conflicting pressures of coursework and exams, part-time jobs, and other commitments.

While we recognise the benefits of this initiative for our own students, we are also aware that we need to offer them more support. We are now taking this initiative a step further, and have created a year 2 course: Languages beyond University. Starting from September 2018, students can take this previously extra-curricular activity as a university course, gaining academic credit to formally recognise their learning. As many will be exploring teaching as a possible career, this experience will offer credibility when applying to a postgraduate qualification, together with a strong reference from the teacher and school they have been working with. For the school pupils, they are offered a broader insight into the language to motivate their learning. Furthermore, we hope they will gain a near-peer role model with our student, who is currently in higher education. As an institution, such community engagement activities help address addressing the complex issues surrounding widening participation.

We are using the Student-Led, Individually-Created Course (SLICC) reflective e-portfolio for experiential learning as the learning and assessment framework, which is a piloted and supported initiative. It is organised as a 20 credit elective course in year two, that spans both semesters to enable participating students to undertake a meaningful placement in a school, to initiate development of their own teaching skills in working with school pupils, and to develop and deliver a cultural learning experience in their school class placement. The aim is also to bring the school class to the university to present their cultural experience project, as widening participation and community outreach.

Photo credit: Annette Götzkes.

For this initiative to work, effective partnerships are key. There is support from the Education Department in Edinburgh City Council, who support the orientation workshops for our students. They act as liaison between university and schools to create the school placements, as well as paying for our students to apply for Protecting Vulnerable Groups (PVG) membership by Disclosure Scotland. The partner placement schools are keen to come forward, recognising the opportunities and benefits to their pupils’ learning, and addressing attainment gaps through links with the university.

We started the pilot course with 12 second-year university students, studying French, German, Italian and Spanish, and 12 Secondary Schools in Edinburgh.

Our students were allocated both a school and academic mentor. Although the main focus of the course is on autonomous, self-directed learning, students attended three, 2-hour workshops in semester 1. The content of the workshops was a mix of practical matters, such as school allocations, organising the PVG application, and interactive sessions on reflective learning, project design and pedagogy. Students were also introduced to reflective learning models, as tools for their regular reflective blogs. These blogs form part of their assessed portfolio where they evidence what they have learned and demonstrate how they have met the self-designed learning outcomes for the course using the SLICC framework. *

While waiting for their PVG approvals, students contacted their school mentors and arranged a first meeting to discuss their outline for a 20-hour lesson plan on a cultural topic designed to engage young learners and motivate them to see the benefits of learning languages.

Half-time: How has it been going so far?

Annette writes….

I  am impressed by how readily our students engage in their reflective blogs, often revealing a frank and rigorous analysis of what were sometimes quite considerable obstacles and challenges they were facing (a favourite is the “much delayed blog on procrastination”). Students reflected on the challenge of getting outside the “university bubble” into the “real“ world-of-work, fear of failure, how to gain self-confidence, time-management and organisational skills. Some of the issues they confront are of a more practical nature, like the long delay of PVG application, non-responsive school-mentors, a long commute to schools, and the difficulty of motivating pupils.

Reading their blogs made me realise what an enormous opportunity the course and the practice of reflective writing offers students to develop important graduate skills such as problem solving, flexibility, resilience and communication skills.

Some short quotes from students´ blogs:

I think the course will be great preparation for my Year Abroad next year as I will be immersing myself in a new and challenging environment.

 (This) …will push me to be an autonomous learner, planning and sticking to my own deadlines.

We suggest that this is a novel initiative and an example of how to embed community engagement, to offer authentic learning with the student at the centre, whilst widening our own institutional curriculum opportunities within an academic department. Furthermore, this course can be readily adapted to any school subject.

*(recommended course reading: Barbara Bassot: The Reflective Journal, and Kate Williams, Mary Woolliams, Jane Spiro: Reflective Writing)

Annette Götzkes

Annette Götzkes is a Senior Teaching Fellow in German Studies, and Director for Outreach and Widening Participation in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures.

Simon Riley

Dr Simon Riley is Director of Student Selected Components for the undergraduate medicine programme, where students choose their field of interest, gain research experience and undertake career exploration. Seconded to the Institute for Academic Development he is developing his interests in reflection, experiential learning, and student agency, to develop SLICCs institution-wide.

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