‘Languages Without Borders’ lab course takes students into the community

 
UIndy students Hannah Hornsby, center, and Hannah Gayhart, right, work with children at Laurelwood Apartments through a new service-learning course.

UIndy students Hannah Hornsby, center, and Hannah Gayhart, right, work with children at Laurelwood Apartments through a new service-learning course.

“Is this obtuse?” asks 11-year-old Angel, pointing to her math homework from IPS School 65. UIndy junior Hunter Hamm patiently explains the various types of angles to Angel and her classmate DeLawrence. It’s one of many small, unexpected lessons he’s been teaching this year to kids at Laurelwood Apartments. The low-income public housing complex in Indianapolis is a world away from Hamm’s small-town upbringing in Franklin, and that creates ample opportunity for learning and personal growth—on both sides. “When a child is having a bad day, you recognize it,” he says.  “You give them the option, if they want to talk about it.”

A biology major with a minor in French, Hamm was among a dozen UIndy students taking part in a service-learning lab course that debuted last fall. Languages Without Borders is the brainchild of Dr. Peter Vakunta, assistant professor of French and chair of the Department of Modern Languages. Through a partnership with a YMCA after-school program, the UIndy students were on site 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, providing supervision, snacks, and homework help to a gaggle of energetic preteens, along with fun lessons and activities based on languages and cultures around the world. “They have to finish their homework to participate in the activity,” explains Hannah Hornsby, a senior psychology major and Spanish minor from Aurora.

The language sessions include basic vocabulary and conversation as well as interactive cultural demonstrations, such as making salsa in conjunction with a Spanish unit, or finding the world’s many French-speaking nations on a map. The UIndy students meet away from the kids every two weeks to plan units around current events and seasonal themes. “They’re learning not just language but also that language reflects and transmits culture,” says Vakunta, who plans to offer the course each semester.

The course was conceived in keeping with UIndy’s Vision 2030 strategic plan, which calls for faculty and students to engage more fully with the off-campus world and embrace the role of community anchor. Beyond the obvious lessons, Vakunta and the students try to teach and model important life skills for the kids, promoting civic responsibility and exposing them to the opportunities they could enjoy by keeping their grades up and going to college. Campus visits are among the plans. “Aside from the academic stuff, we want to teach them to be good citizens,” Vakunta says. “It’s important that they hear a message of hope and possibility.”