Global Classrooms Close to Home

Author: Liz Harter and Bill Gilroy

Global Classrooms Close to Home

Notre Dame Fulbrights bring International language and culture to community school

Stroll down a hallway of South Bend’s Perley Primary Fine Arts Academy and you’ll likely hear the sounds of most elementary schools: students reading aloud, teachers offering words of encouragement and even a few notes of music. You’ll also notice different sounds seldom-heard at most American elementary schools: Russian, Korean, Swahili and other languages being spoken.

An innovative program between Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Languages and Culture (CSLC) and Perley Fine Arts Academy, located a mile from Notre Dame’s campus, allows students to connect with Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistants (FLTAs).

The Fulbright FLTA Program enables young international educators to refine their skills by serving primarily as teaching assistants in foreign language classes or, in some cases, as primary instructors at the university level. Notre Dame is one of only seven universities chosen from a highly-selective process from the Fulbright Program to be a host institution.

A close partnership between Notre Dame and the International Institute of Education (IIE), the nonprofit which administers the Fulbright Program, began in 2005, when both IIE and Brian Ó Conchubhair, associate professor of Irish Language and Literature, had the idea that the FLTAs needed their own orientation before beginning their academic lives in America. Prior to that, the FLTAs attended the Fulbright Scholars orientation but not all of the information applied to them.

“It’s great that we were bringing these kids over [from other countries],” Ó Conchubhair said. “But the culture at a university in North America is very, very different from the culture at a university in other countries.”

IIE was already discussing how to better serve the FLTAs, and Notre Dame joined five other institutions as FLTA orientation hosts that year. Since 2005, the orientation program at Notre Dame has expanded to include all FLTAs and each year 60-65 FLTAs pass through campus over the summer.

This year, 10 FLTAs stayed — the largest number Notre Dame has ever hosted. While at their host institutions, they serve as teaching assistants in foreign language classes, interact with peers on campus and take at least two courses per semester. At Notre Dame, six of the FLTAs are also volunteering their time for one week each month in Perley classrooms to teach their native language and culture to kindergartners through fourth-graders.

At Perley we started exploring how we could develop our students’ experiences with the global world and reached out to Notre Dame for assistance.Jill VanDriessche, Perley principal

“At Perley we started exploring how we could develop our students’ experiences with the global world and reached out to Notre Dame for assistance,” Perley principal Jill VanDriessche said of the partnership with Notre Dame that began in 2014. “We wanted our students to look beyond their neighborhood to the endless possibilities the world could provide them as they further their educational experience.”

Many of Perley’s students have never been on an airplane; almost none have left the country. The FLTAs provide a way for the elementary students to have a world experience without traveling the world.

“They have all these funny questions at the end of a lesson: ‘Are you flying back to Germany tonight?’ ‘Did you bring your parents with you?’” German FLTA Daniel Fastlabend said. “I think it’s hard for them to imagine that someone comes across the ocean for nine and a half hours and stays here for a year – and also comes to Perley.”

Third-grade teacher Courtney Baranay said the first year of the Perley partnership with Notre Dame exposed some difficulties with the program — mainly that the students at Perley had never necessarily interacted with someone from another country who might look, act and speak differently than them.

“We realized that it couldn’t be so much a language lesson as a culture lesson,” she said. “For the first week we found that it helped if we just let the students ask questions and learn about the FLTAs' lives. It helped the students to accept this person who may have an accent they’ve never heard, or who says words a little differently than they do into the classroom.”

This year, however, the Perley students like third-grader Anaira Ramirez and four-grader Xavier Taylor were eager to add another language to their arsenal. Last year, Anaira learned Hindi while Xavier was able to study Italian. This year, Anaira is learning Russian from FLTA Oksana Galzkova and Xavier is learning Swahili from FLTA Loreen Owaga and Korean from FLTA Heemang Kim.

Both students say the language classes are their favorite part of the day with Anaira enjoying the songs and cartoons Glazkova has shared with the class. Xavier said his classes make him want to go visit Kenya and South Korea, where Owaga and Kim are from.

“The Perley students have gained a better understanding of cultural differences and have celebrated those differences,” VanDriessche added. “As our students learn from international partners they are also able to share their American story.“

Denise Ayo, assistant director of the CSLC, said this sharing of American culture is doubly important for the FLTAs to get a well-rounded experience in the United States.

At Notre Dame they have access to world-class intellectuals and world-class libraries, but they don’t always get outside of that bubble. They don’t often get into South Bend or meet people who aren’t students or faculty, and Perley provides a way to meet a diverse cross-section of society,” she said.

It goes beyond teaching and is about language use — for many of the FLTAs, English is their third or fourth language, but at Perley they get to interact with kids with slang and with the vernacular. It just enriches and widens their social circle in South Bend.

Taking advantage of that opportunity to engage with the community and integrate with aspects of American culture is a major part of what the Fulbright Commission expects of their grantees. Volunteering is not a mandatory requirement of the FLTA program, but it is recommended as a way to immerse themselves into the community.

I realized that children are basically the same internationally. They are good and they are highly interested in learning other cultures.Heemang Kim, Fulbright Fellow from South Korea

Our interest in hearing about volunteer activities coincided with Brian [Ó Conchubhair] launching this program. It was really exciting for us to hear that Notre Dame was moving in a direction with the FLTAs that really aligned with what the sponsor felt the FLTAs should be doing in addition to their assistantship duties,” said Marsha Frith, Assistant Director of Fulbright FLTA at the IIE.

Ó Conchubhair says that integration into the community is often easier said than done as responsibilities stack up during their short time in the U.S.

They're taken up with teaching, they’re taking classes as students and they have their own lives,” he said. “That’s why at Notre Dame we’ve tried to institutionalize that cultural aspect. We’ve built it in with this Perley program.”

Frith said IIE has taken note of the opportunity Notre Dame took to build culture into its program.

I would say they’re among the best,” she said. To not just integrate culturally, but to have that cultural exchange, I would say that Notre Dame is one of the best institutions.”

The FLTAs become fully immersed in their life at Perley, participating in American rituals for holidays like trick-or-treating for Halloween and teaching Christmas carols in their own languages.

It's a little bit time consuming, but to me the best thing about Perley is it is a really good experience,” Heemang Kim, the FLTA from South Korea said. Kim taught elementary, middle and high school before coming to Notre Dame. Having this new experience with American children has only helped her if she decides to return to teaching she said.

I realized that children are basically the same internationally. They are good and they are highly interested in learning other cultures. But they are not learning, they are not studying. They are playing with the language and the culture. So I have learned to be playful with them.

That aspect of playing as teaching has only benefited the Perley school children, too.

The introduction of foreign language has equalized the learning for all students. Students that have struggled in their home language have thrived learning another language,” VanDriessche said.

Our students love their international partners. There are usually hugs and tears when the FLTAs leave.”

Produced by the Office of Public Affairs and Communications.

  • Authors: Liz Harter and Bill Gilroy
  • Photography: Barbara Johnston