Spanish teacher's students to teach Latino community

Spanish teacher's students to teach Latino community

CHAMPAIGN – When Montserrat Oliveras-Heras teaches Spanish at Parkland College, she wants to create as many opportunities for her students to speak the language as possible.

But the conversations in the classroom can be pretty artificial. She wanted to have her students talk with Latinos living in the community, in a way that would benefit both groups.

So next fall, one of her Spanish classes will teach basic computer skills to Latino residents of Shadowwood Mobile Home park in north Champaign. All the training will be done in Spanish, helping her students learn the language in a real-life situation. In addition to the training, residents will get computers and software to use.

Oliveras-Heras proposed the project for an entrepreneurial fellowship. She was chosen as Parkland's 2009 faculty fellow, in a program with the University of Illinois Academy of Entrepreneurial Leadership.

Fellows are asked to redesign an academic course to enhance students' entrepreneurial thinking and skills, said Fay Rouseff-Baker, Parkland's associate vice president for teaching and learning.

Parkland's previous faculty fellows reviewed the proposals and chose Oliveras-Heras.

"They are looking for an innovative, entrepreneurial idea that (affects) student learning and the quality in the community," Rouseff-Baker said. "It is about improving our own community and our own people" at Parkland.

It was the entrepreneurial part that caught Oliveras-Heras' attention. She helped her brother run a business in her native Spain before coming to Champaign-Urbana to study at the University of Illinois. She taught Spanish at the UI for 13 years before coming to Parkland in 2004. She also teaches Latin American literature, culture and civilization at Parkland.

"When you are in the humanities, it's sort of hard to involve your students in something business-related, but social entrepreneurialism is part of this," she said of the fellowship.

Oliveras-Heras saw how computer-savvy her students were, and got the idea of teaching local Latinos computer skills. She contacted Shadowwood, which has a large number of Latino residents, and she is working with one of them in developing the project.

Oliveras-Heras said her students will teach word processing, e-mail skills and how to do research on the Internet. She said residents need to be able to access and complete the online applications that many employers require.

She said technology, while a great tool, can also create a divide between those with access to it and those without.

"I want instead to create a bridge," Oliveras-Heras said, by using the project to introduce Parkland and what it has to offer to Latino residents.

The fellowship comes with a $10,000 grant, half of which comes from Parkland and half from the UI. The money will be used to buy computers, software and office materials for Shadowwood residents to use.

Parkland's computer science department already has a service learning component in which students repair computers. Oliveras-Heras wants to get them involved in providing advice on software and maintaining the computers for the Shadowwood residents.

Oliveras-Heras plans to assess her students' knowledge and perceptions of Latino culture before and after the project.

"When you learn another language, you also learn to see things in a different way," she said. "Not all things are expressed in the same way, so you see things from a different perspective. You see the world in another way.

"I think students will get to appreciate the Latino culture much more."

She hopes the project will continue past the fall 2009 semester, and that it will lead to other ways students can be involved with Latinos in the community.

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