Teaching to learn, learning to teach: CSU students volunteering at local language school receive as much as they give

Alissa Allen helps a student

Grace Russell says the students she works with are proud of learning a difficult language like Mandarin. Photos by Xavier Hadley

A group of Colorado State University students have been volunteering at a language immersion school in Fort Collins, providing valuable assistance to the instructors while getting extra practice with their Spanish, French and Mandarin outside the classroom.

AXIS International Academy offers immersion classes in those three languages for preschool through fifth grade. Kari Anne Calarco, AXIS co-founder and head of school, said the assistance this fall from the 17 CSU students either majoring or minoring in the subject has been welcome.

“The teachers say any support in the classroom is helpful, especially from someone who knows the language,” she explained.

Grace Russell helps a student

Fourth-year French major Alissa Allen, standing, volunteers at AXIS about 90 minutes each week.

CSU ties

AXIS has a couple of CSU faculty members on its board of directors. It opened in August at the corner of Horsetooth and Taft Hill roads, in the building formerly occupied by Global Village Academy, which closed in June.

Frédérique Grim, an associate professor in CSU’s Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, runs the volunteer program and observes the French kindergarten class as part of her research on bilingual education. She started coordinating the effort at Global Village with about 10 CSU students in 2014. Some of them receive course credit for the work, but most do not.

“It benefits our students, because they learn vocabulary that we don’t always use at CSU,” Grim said. “Our students get to hear different accents, dialects and wording. We always look for opportunities for CSU students to apply their language skills, and several of them have decided to become teachers after this experience. We want to prepare them to meet the world with linguistic skills they can use outside of college.”

Alissa Allen helps a student

Volunteer experience

Alissa Allen, a fourth-year French major, just added teacher licensure to her educational path and will graduate in spring 2021. She volunteers at AXIS for about 90 minutes each week.

“It has definitely provided me with extra practice speaking and writing in French,” she said. “Having to teach young kids helps me because we use a different vocabulary, like shapes and numbers. I want to teach this age group, and this experience confirmed that for me.”

Grace Russell, a fourth-year international studies major who is minoring in Mandarin Chinese and business, volunteers at AXIS three hours a week.

“I think it’s helped me apply my knowledge in a different way, because I’m doing the teaching and not being taught,” she said.  “I want to be part of the cultural perspective in America that values teaching a language other than English — and treats that language as just as important as English.”

Grace Russell helps a student

Pride in accomplishments

Russell added that Mandarin is not an easy language to learn, so her students take their bilingual advances to heart.

“Even on the playground, they’ll yell, ‘Chase me!’ in Chinese,” she said. “They’re so proud of learning a difficult language.”

Calarco noted that learning a second language is easier for young people than adults.

“They’re still learning English too, so they’re open to it,” she said. “Learning a language is not something that’s new to them.”

Allen, whose father holds a Ph.D. in French, attended a preschool and elementary school where French was taught, so she has firsthand experience in learning a second language at a young age.

“I remember it not being hard at all to switch languages when I was 5 years old,” she said. “It’s much easier when you’re immersed in the environment, and it’s so interesting to watch these young kids absorbing it so fast. Since I went through a similar school, seeing these kids excited about learning French is so cool. It’s like coming full circle, especially if I end up teaching French to children this age.”

Alissa Allen helps a student

Teaching to learn, learning to teach

And it’s not just immersive for the youngsters, but the CSU students as well.

“Here at AXIS, I’m definitely more forced to speak French, because I’m answering questions and explaining things to these kids,” Allen said. “I feel a responsibility to know the language as the teacher, instead of being a learner at CSU.”

Sophie Cauvin, the AXIS French instructor who Allen has been assisting, says having the CSU students on hand is invaluable.

“It’s great, because they can interact with the kids in French, and the children realize that it’s spoken outside of school,” she said. “It’s really helpful to have another person in the class who speaks French. It’s so nice to have a strong partner like CSU as we grow.”

Russell, who wants to move to China after graduation, said the AXIS experience also looks good on a resume.

“If I want a job teaching English in China, I can now say that I have this teaching experience,” she said. “It’s been a real gift to volunteer with these kids. When I arrive, they all run up to me to give me hugs, so I can tell that I’ve made an impact, even if it’s small. Hopefully I can pass along my passion to these students, and they can continue that passion in the years to come.”

The Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures is in CSU’s College of Liberal Arts.

Grace Russell helps a student