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Speaking Their Language

Grad students take Spanish lessons to Roxbury


Instructor Maria Luisa Martinez (left), with student Lashema Rivera.

Leslie McConnell is long past the age when the mind is a blank slate for language learning. She took her last forgettable Spanish class in college and since then has made only minor attempts to keep up with the language.

But on a recent night, she dreamed of conjugating verbs in Spanish. “For once,” she says, “I can honestly say that I’m acquiring a language. Always in the past, I was just learning it by rote.”

McConnell is part of an unlikely group of language learners who congregate each Wednesday in the common room of the Camfield Garden Estates housing development in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. Taught by Graduate School of Arts & Sciences student volunteers, many of the class participants are senior citizens, although there are teenagers and working professionals, too. They come from a range of backgrounds: mostly African-American, but also Hispanic, Irish, and Lithuanian. And all of them come to class each week not because they have to, but because they want to be able to communicate with Spanish speakers in their lives, or just out of intellectual curiosity.

“I felt I needed to take the class because we live in a bilingual society, and I want to be able to communicate with more people,” says McConnell, a social worker at Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury. “I work with Spanish-speaking people every day, and now I try out my Spanish with them.”

The course, which began in March 2008, is the brainchild of BU alumna Jewelle Anderson (CFA’84). A retired Boston Public Schools teacher, Anderson has been a community volunteer for years. She decided to launch the class after senior citizens at the Women’s Service Club of Boston, where she was vice president, told her they wanted an opportunity to learn Spanish. The club is a community service organization founded for black women.

With only a tiny budget for the class, Anderson needed volunteer teachers. So she approached James Iffland, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of romance studies, then head of the Spanish section and now department chair, to see if he could recommend any graduate students willing to volunteer their time. “I knew that BU would have great teachers,” she explains. Iffland promised her he would send along some of his best.

He saw an opportunity to help senior citizens and other local residents, as well as to enrich graduate students’ experience. “It seemed to be a perfect project for our students to provide a service to the community,” says Iffland. “It also gives graduate students a chance to teach in an environment that is very different from the environment they’ve been teaching in at BU. I think that universities should be doing more of this type of activity.”

Drawn by flyers and newspaper advertisements Anderson had posted, 20 students showed up the first day, and over the next few months, all but 3 attended regularly. As the students and teachers got to know one another, they developed a strong camaraderie. In December 2008, the students organized a party to celebrate their first year together and to thank instructors Megan Gibbons (GRS’11), Maria Luisa Martinez (GRS’11), and Peter Mahoney (GRS’11).

The three, all planning to become Spanish professors, say the experience has broadened their perspective on what learning can be. “I have gained a continuing appreciation that learning is, or can be, a lifelong process,” says Gibbons. “I had an 80-year-old in my class who came in with a cane. She had a great sense of humor about learning a new language at her age. I was humbled.”

Cultural exchange
Sisters Lashema Rivera, 15, and Tatyanna McGuire, 21, faithfully attend every class. They say they are taking the class so that they can converse more easily with their Spanish-speaking relatives.

“When I was little, I knew how to speak Spanish fluently,” explains Rivera, whose father is Puerto Rican. “But I got out of touch with it, so I want to be able to be closer to my other relatives. Also, in today’s society being bilingual really helps. All of my friends speak Creole or Japanese or Spanish.” Their grandmother, Betty Lou McGuire, is also in the class, and the three practice their Spanish together regularly.

They exemplify the cultural fusion occurring in Roxbury. In recent decades, the predominantly African-American neighborhood has seen an influx of immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. A walk through the busy retail district and public transportation hub Dudley Square is a study in diversity. A group of teenagers converse in Spanish, sprinkled with English phrases, as they wait for a bus. A local merchant from Jamaica greets customers at his fruit stand as reggae from his stereo pulses out into the square. In front of One United Bank, a branch of the largest African-American-owned and -managed bank in the country, a group of elderly men catch up on the day’s gossip.

While interactions among the groups are usually peaceful, misperceptions and distrust can strain relations.

“One of the reasons the class interested me was that it is a small opportunity to begin to improve the relationship between African-Americans and Latinos,” says Iffland. “I just think that if more African-Americans begin to learn Spanish and learn about Latino culture, and if Latinos learn more about African-American culture, some of the friction that has marked the relationship may begin to disappear.”

The class is a prototype of how positive intercultural learning can work. The teachers are patient. The students are motivated and ask a lot of questions, particularly about the Spanish-speaking countries their teachers have visited. They want to know how life is lived in those countries. Anderson suggested they go on a trip together to Madrid, Spain, to experience the culture and language firsthand.

The students took up the challenge with gusto. Since last May, they have held potluck fundraisers, offering fried fish, barbecued ribs, peach cobbler, candied yams, and a whole array of other dishes to local residents. McGuire alone provided sweet potatoes, candied yams, and peach cobbler. “They were from heaven,” remembers Anderson.

A good life
A commitment to education runs in Anderson’s veins. The daughter of a doctor and a schoolteacher, she was born in Alexandria, La., in 1932, a time when black children rarely received an equal education.

“My grandmother was one of the first blacks to teach in New Orleans public schools,” Anderson (right) recalls. “It was embedded in my family that the women were schoolteachers. Men in my family were doctors, or were on the police force. That’s the way it was.”

As a student at BU, Anderson met other African-American classmates, including a young man named Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59), who was pursuing a doctorate in systematic theology. “I got to know Martin well,” she says. “We had a circle of friends who would get together regularly. It was a tight-knit black community at the time.”

Anderson was drawn to working with children, as had her mother, grandmother, and aunts before her. She worked for a time with preschoolers at the YWCA on Clarendon Street, and taught history, social studies, art, and music to elementary and middle school students in the Boston Public Schools for 22 years, retiring in 2003.

Her interest in education led her back to the classroom, this time organizing the Spanish class. “I wanted this to be a joyful class,” she says. “I want to see growth, to have them learn about Spanish food and go to a foreign country — and see the social life of a foreign country.”

Anderson’s vision has become a reality, creating a fruitful partnership between BU and the Women’s Service Club that nurtures both students and teachers. Iffland is committed to the collaboration. “I would like to really strengthen this relationship, and recruit more students willing to take the extra time to teach in Roxbury,” he says. “I want to make sure this program continues and expands. It seems to be a perfect fit between the needs of the Boston community and the capacity of BU to help.”

This article originally ran in the fall 2009 issue of the CAS Arts & Sciences magazine.

Jeremy Schwab can be reached at jschwab@bu.edu.

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