April 10, 2014
‘Conversation Tree’ offers community-based English education Julia Hernandez
ty with Rutgers students, Curran said. “[We] created this program Five days per week, New to of fer Rutgers students serBrunswick residents looking to vice learning oppor tunities improve their English have the while meeting a need in the option of practicing their skills community,” Curran said. The program of fers with Rutgers students. In the spring of 2012, Mar y students oppor tunities for pracCurran and Amy Michael estab- tical, real-world experience that lished The Conversation Tree: links local and global objecCommunity-Based Language tives, she said. The students are the Par tnerships, a program that works with existing community conversation facilitators and English as a Second Language lead the sessions, said Jessica programs in a more conversa- Hunsdon, community outreach coordinator for The Collaboration-based, informal setting. The program is a collabora- tive Center and the Graduate tion between the Rutgers Grad- School of Education. “It’s a mutual learning exuate School of Education and The Collaborative Center for perience,” she said. “Our ConCommunity-Based Research versation Café’s and our placements for students can be quite and Ser vice. Formerly known as Students diverse as far as representative Advancing Literacy Skills in of language and culture.” Most of the conversation Adults, or SALSA, Rutgers created The Conversation Tree facilitators are undergraduate students, but in response graduate stuto community dents par ticneed, said Cur“[It is a] space where as well. ran, the asso[community members] ipate They are not ciate dean for to L o c a l - G l o b a l can come with their own required P a r t n e r s h i p s needs and know there will have a backat the Gradu- be sympathetic listeners,” ground in a second lanate School of Michael said. guage. Education. W h i l e T h e y there are a changed the Amy Michael name from Senior program administraror of the Civic fair amount of Spanish speakSALSA to The Engagement and Service Education ers, languages Conversation such as ChiTree because nese, Hungarthe former name implied the program ian, Japanese, Korean, Por tuwas for Spanish speakers only, guese, Russian and Turkish are said Michael, senior program represented as well. The students come from all administrator of the Civic Engagement and Ser vice Educa- disciplines within the University, including linguistics, anthrotion Par tnership Program. The words “literacy skills” pology, political science and also implied a formal structure pre-med majors, Hunsdon said. Each conversation facilitator at odds with the aim of the orser ves at a Conversation Café ganization. The program uses a diver- session for approximately two sity of languages in a conver- hours per week for nine weeks sation-style structure, Michael in the fall, spring and summer, said. The name “The Conversa- Hunsdon said. Many students tion Tree” is more reflective of return for another session. A total of 29 students par tictheir program with its informal teaching structure and their ipated as conversation facilitaeagerness to foster language tors this academic year, but the program is always looking for skills growth. Curran and Michael’s inspi- more students. With more student involveration for developing The Conversation Tree was bred from ment comes a broadening of both community needs and the the program to surrounding desire to connect the communi- communities, Michael said. Contributing Writer
The Conversation Tree, created by Rutgers Graduate School of Education and The Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service, provides an informal space for adult learners to practice conversational English. COURTESY OF JESSICA HUNSDON “The need is there,” she said. Jessie Cur tis, par t-time lecturer and doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Education, joined the project in Spring 2012 to do research for the pilot project that later evolved into the Conversation Café — an informal, conversation-based group. “Adult learners have other priorities,” Cur tis said. The café ser ves as a model of language interaction that is suitable for the adult learner. The café, held five days per week at local par tner sites, gives community members an oppor tunity to work in small groups with Rutgers students to improve their English speech. All levels of English are welcome. Those sites include the Rutgers Center for Operations Research building lounge on Busch campus, the Youth Empowerment Ser vices on George
Street, the New Brunswick Free Public Librar y on Livingston Avenue and the New Labor Education & Training Institute located on Bayard Street in New Brunswick. “[It is a] space where [community members] can come with their own needs and know there will be sympathetic listeners,” Michael said. Since the pilot study, they have seen an increase in the number of par ticipants that attend the cafés and the number of par ticipants that return each semester, Cur tis said. At first, she said they relied on flyers to attract residents, but they later began to integrate social media. The Conversation Tree created a Facebook page and a website. “[The] Conversation Tree and Conversation Café are metaphors for the ability of adult language learners to participate in a conversation but also in the larger society,” Curtis said.
This spring semester will round out the second year of The Conversation Tree. “The program has been tremendously successful, reaching large numbers of community members and Rutgers students,” Curran said. “I imagine we will continue to grow.” Michael envisions the program becoming a national model for other universities to introduce to their communities. The Conversation Tree expanded its reach to Mexico this past March. Curran said it provided workshops in Mérida, Mexico to the faculty at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán in an ef for t to model their program for the development of English, Mayan and Spanish in the local communities. “We wanted to provide a much needed ser vice, and we wanted to do all of this in a way that is mutually beneficial,” Curran said.
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