Megan Solon

Assistant Professor

Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures

What are you currently working on in the area of public engagement?
I am working to connect my teaching areas of [Spanish] language acquisition and pedagogy as well as Spanish linguistics with the larger Albany and Capital Region communities. This year, this work has taken two forms. In Fall 2016, students in my Spanish for Teachers course (ASPN 403; an upper-level Spanish course for majors and minors) had the option for their final project for the course of either creating a comprehensive teaching portfolio at the end of the semester or volunteering at the Spanish-English dual-language program at Delaware Community School on a weekly basis during the entire semester and giving a presentation of their work at experiences at the end. I should mention that the idea and groundwork for partnering with Delaware Community School was that of Lecturer Leonardo Correa, and it has been a wonderful connection to make. Approximately half of the students in the course chose to work at Delaware Community School. They were each paired with a particular teacher/classroom and worked in that classroom in whatever capacity best served the teacher and students for at least 1 hour a week, although many students elected to volunteer additional hours on a weekly basis.

This semester, I wanted to expand on that partnership through a course in which service in the community played a more central role. This semester was the first semester that the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures offered our new course (ASPN 409) Spanish for Community Engagement. It is a course that combines academic coursework around the topics of communicative competence and Spanish in the US with service in Albany and surrounding communities. In this inaugural running of the course, students chose from one of three options for their service, and they partner with that organization throughout the semester, dedicating approximately 2 hours/week (or a total of about 25 hours of service for the semester) to the selected program. Options for service through this course were: Delaware Community School, Westview Senior Center, and Project Totem (a program that provides translation and interpretation services for the Albany Law School Clinic and the Justice Center's Immigration Law Clinic).

How did you get involved in this work?
As previously mentioned, Spanish Lecturer Leonardo Correa brought to my attention that he had been in contact with the principal of Delaware Community School about the possibility of UAlbany students partnering with and assisting in the dual-language program. Because my main areas of research and teaching interest deal with second, foreign, and heritage language acquisition, we thought that working to fit such a partnership into a course on language teaching would be a great way to make the principles and methods discussed in the course come to life.

Beyond that initial partnership, however, as a scholar of second/foreign language acquisition, I believe that languages are best learned through real communication. Often, in language classes, we work to create tasks and scenarios that mimic or simulate real-life so that our students can have as much "real" practice using the language as possible. For me, public engagement and service learning is a way to turn this around and, instead of trying to bring real life into the classroom, we take the classroom out into the "real life" of our community. Additionally, beyond just language acquisition, I think learning about topics in Spanish linguistics such as language variation and applied linguistics also come to life with real experience. Students don't just learn about particular features of certain Spanish dialects, they hear them, struggle to understand them, and work to engage with others who may use words or features they haven't learned or they don't regularly use. They also are confronted with the reality that learning a language involves a lot more than just learning grammatical rules and vocabulary-- you also have to learn more subtle (but very important!) things like, how you most appropriately address someone older or younger than you, how to start or end a conversation appropriately, what features or patterns are more appropriate for formal situations and which sound better in casual conversation. These types of things can be talked about in a classroom, but getting out in the community provides the potential for opportunities to learn and experience such topics firsthand.

What is the greatest reward in your publicly engaged work?
For me, so far, there have been two wonderful rewards: The first, being new to the Albany and UAlbany communities, is simply that by pursuing publicly engaged work, I've learned so much more about my university, the students I work with and serve, and my community and the resources and opportunities available as well as some of the needs present. As a teacher and scholar, I feel more engaged in my class and in my work because I'm also learning about my new home and connecting my work with real people and real lives. The other, perhaps even greater reward has been to watch students take the seedlings of opportunities to volunteer or connect with particular organizations and community members and to transform these opportunities into experiences that are both educationally beneficial for them but also impact our community. Students regularly dedicate many more hours than those required by my courses to the programs with which they partner. They are willing and ready to take on ambitious projects to meet needs in the community that they identify once they get to know an organization. I have learned so much from my students about creativity, initiative, and involvement by watching how they take hold and transform the service partnerships we're working to build.

What are your future plans for your publicly engaged work?
I'd like to continue building on the established partnerships as well as adding new ones. It is also a goal of mine to connect public engagement more closely with my research and with the research opportunities I provide my students.

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