When a dual-language class is being offered, you probably think it’s basic or developmental English or English as a Second Language. And normally, you would be correct. But that wasn’t the case at Seward County Community last semester.
The college decided to think outside the box and offer Beginning Algebra with a twist. It would be offered as a dual-language course – in English and Spanish. It was an experiment and in the end, everyone was satisfied with the outcome.
“I’m pretty pleased,” said Luke Dowell, dean of arts and sciences at SCCC. “I think things went really well.”
Dr. Heather Hannah, who taught the course, agreed with Dowell.
“I think the class worked really hard,” Hannah said. “They’re all doing very well. I knew they were all going to be good students.”
According to Dowell, the idea came from a discussion with Travis Combs, dean of industrial technology and director of adult basic education.
“We started talking about how can we get students from the Colvin Adult Learning Center on to the SCCC campus and get them to enroll in college level courses after they received their GEDs,” Dowell said, adding that the idea began to pick up steam a year ago. “The idea was to start getting Colvin students college credit while they were still working on their GEDs.”
After further discussion, the school decided on using the dual language concept on a mathematics course.
“We decided to test the waters with math,” Dowell said. The selection served two purposes: it would be a test case, and it would address students’ needs. After graduating from the GED program, administrators observed that Colvin students often struggled in math, placing way below standard college-entrance benchmarks when they ventured on to SCCC’s main campus.
“We wanted to find out if there was a correlation between where they they placed and language,” Dowell said.
To be accepted in the experimental course, Colvin students needed to take a mathematics test in both English and Spanish. The selected students, all GED certificate holders, had completed some higher education work in their home countries.
“These students are coming at a higher level,” said Sonia Hernandez, transition coordinator for adult education at SCCC. Hernandez worked with Hannah in teaching the class, and brought a high level of familiarity with the students’ widely varying backgrounds. “These students have graduated in their respective countries. And they all have their GEDs.”
Interestingly, when they took the test, the first cohort performed just as well as on English as Spanish.
“It was a little surprising,” Dowell said. “It was hard to say if the language was the issue. We gave the test in English and Spanish and found no real difference.” He speculated that “students who may not understand the language may have understood the math problem simply by looking at it because math and its formulas transcends language. A plus sign is a plus sign everywhere.”
The next step was to find an instructor and a translator. Hannah and Hernandez were ready to work together.
“I was really excited,” Hannah said. “It was the one class I was really looking forward to.”
Hannah said that language was not an issue for her.
“I know a little bit (of Spanish) and I have Sonia, so I was good to go,” Hannah said. “Math is math. Math isn’t a barrier.”
By semester’s end, Hannah said the group of students proved to be one of her hardest-working classes ever as a whole.
“They each want to learn,” Hannah said. “They want to work. The entire class is motivated and they’re doing really well.”
While Hannah teaches, Hernandez takes notes in Spanish and makes sure each student is following along. The notes are put into a binder and can be used by the students to catch up if they miss a class, Hernandez says.
It’s a plus that Hernandez has worked at SCCC for 13 years and has tutored and taught mathematics at Colvin: it gives her another level of insight about the learning process for a particular group of students. Her focus is not just helping them master the material, but also easing the invisible adjustments and strains of moving from the adult-education style of classes at Colvin to the more traditional — and often intimidating — collegiate course atmosphere.
Hannah is incredibly appreciative to have Hernandez in the classroom.
“I trust that she’ll stop me when the students aren’t following me,” Hannah said. “She’ll see that the students aren’t quite getting it and she’ll stop me and ask that I explain it again.”
Over the semester, Hernandez and Hannah developed a nearly wordless communication style, which proved to be a key factor for success.
“Sometimes I will see a student and looks like she doesn’t understand, I can look up and Heather will go over it without me saying anything,” Hernandez said. Both instructors agreed that the frequency of stoppages lessened as the semester continued.
The daytime class, is schedule for an hour every day, but the instructors allowed for an extra hour afterwards. Hernandez stays with the students to go over homework and any concepts that they do not understand. While a typical college class doesn’t offer this amenity, Hernandez felt the additional layer of support was necessary for students who might otherwise give up if the combination of challenging material and an unfamiliar setting proved too daunting.
According to Dowell, the students have acclimated to the class and to the language with the key being to make them more comfortable in the college environment and less fearful of taking college classes.
“These are students who deal with a small group (at Colvin) and they come on campus and there’s a lot more students,” Dowell said. “It’s intimidating. I think the dual language helps them get comfortable.”
And that goal seems to have been accomplished: The students in this class will be taking more SCCC classes next semester. Hernandez said she’d discussed their potential schedules, worked through the enrollment process, and shared in their newfound sense of confidence.
“They are more comfortable,” Hernandez said. “They know where admissions is. They know where financial aid and the registrar’s office is. They will be on campus next semester.”
The first class, comprised of non-traditional students, was small. It would have been bigger, but some students who tested into class could not take it due to work or personal issues. As a result, spring semester’s version of the class will continue the experiment with a shift to evenings. Dowell and Combs hope it will garner more students.
Unfortunately, the evening class time means Hannah will not be teaching the class, but Hernandez will continue with it.
“We’ll get together (before the start of the semester) and make sure we are on the same page,” Hernandez said, adding that there will be a learning curve with her taking over as the new instructor. A semester of sitting in the classroom to observe Hannah’s approach closely provided a foundation, she added. Even so, “from my perspective, it will be a challenge because Heather was so good. But I am positive things will go well (next semester).”
— Phillip Lee