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International students practice language,
teaching skills with undergraduates
(April 12, 1999)

hen Kristina Alfano walked into class as a freshman and realized that an international teaching assistant was in charge, she was nervous, worried she might not be able to understand.

Laura Anderson thought the international teaching assistants who taught her in her freshman year had a good command of the subject matter but she was critical of their communication skills.

But when Alfano and Anderson, now sophomores, signed up to work with ITAs, they saw a different picture.

"Now my view has totally changed. Totally, totally, totally," says Anderson, a fourth semester sociology major who works in both an international teaching assistant class and an oral communicatio ns class for ITAs. "If you're just willing to spend half a class getting used to their accent, it's quite easy to understand ITAs," she says.

The two are part of a new program in which undergraduates work with international teaching assistants to improve their English language and teaching skills.

Catherine Jarvis, director of the International Teaching Assistant Program, recruits undergraduates through flyers posted on campus and by word of mouth. "I tell them, 'You'll get interpersonal communication skills, cross-cultural communication skills, the ability to work in a diverse workplace - these are marketable skills,'" she says.

The only qualification is that the applicant should be an undergraduate . "My goal is to get a representative sample," she says.

After a two-hour orientation, the undergraduates are ready for class.

Interacting in class
In a classroom in Arjona building recently, Alfano is working with two graduate students, Olga Zhaxybayeva, a Ph.D. student in molecular and cell biology from Kazakhstan, and Jisheng Li, a Ph.D. student in plant science from China. At the instructor's request, the two sit back to back. It's an exercise in listening and in giving clear instructions.

Zhaxybayeva reads from a textbook: "Draw a circle, mark off five points equally distant from each other."

Alfano, a fourth-semester pre-education major, observes and acts as coach. "Listen, listen, listen," she says.

As Li connects the last two points and names the figure he has drawn, a star, Alfano claps. "That was the smoothest I've ever done this exercise. That came out really well," she encourages them.

A few moments later, she helps Li improve his pronunciation of the word "environmentalists" by modeling it for him. "I know that's hard," she says.

The international students are preparing for a teaching presentation at the end of the semester, a test introduced last year at UConn for students who scored well on the test of spoken English, SPEAK, but did not quite achieve a passing grade. If they pass the TEACH test, they will qualify to teach at the University.

When the graduate students practice their presentations, the undergraduates play the role of students in their class, taking notes, interrupting with questions, and offering critical feedback.

International students also learn some key differences in the culture of the classroom.

"Compared to students in my country," says Wei Lin, a Ph.D. student in computer science from China, "American students are very active in class. This class is very helpful for me. Besides spoken English, I learned how to ask questions."

"This class teaches us about the culture of American students: what they want, what they like, what they don't like, how they act in class," says Mohamed Hefeeda of Egypt who is studying for a Ph.D. in computer science. Hefeeda has taught before but says that, unlike his home country, where education is funded by the government, here students regard education as a service because they are paying for it.

Although international teaching assistants play a vital role in teaching at any research university, their communications skills have long been a target of criticism from both students and parents.

"Especially in the sciences, there is a shortage of American citizens going into graduate school. It's all over the country and all over the disciplines. It's hard to get graduate students from this country. In other countries they are eager to come here to get graduate education," says Chuck Vinsonhaler, professor and head of the math department, where 34 out of 55 teaching assistants come from overseas.

The changes in the training and testing of international students who hope to teach are part of university-wide efforts to improve the quality of undergraduate education. "We have a responsibility to offer good instruction to freshmen," says Vinsonhaler.

Better training also enhances the experience of international graduate students at the University.

International students are eager to improve their skills. Many departments, including math, insist that their foreign graduate students meet the University's standards for teaching within one year to remain enrolled. Graduate students also need the money they earn from teaching to support themselves. And they know the ability to speak fluent English will be an advantage when looking for a job.

"The international students are under tremendous pressure," says Shiva Tavana, instructor for the ITA class. "They have all their graduate work, they have research, they have exams, and then they have this, the language and teaching skills training."

Supporting the students while they qualify to teach has created an extra challenge for some departments. Vinsonhaler says his department is fortunate to have some fellowships to fund graduate students when they first arrive. "We do have a little flexibility to use them outside the classroom, in the computer lab and tutoring in the math center," he says.

Speaking practice
Involving undergraduates is just one of the changes Jarvis has introduced in the International Teaching Assistant Program since she arrived at UConn last spring.

In addition to improving the ITA class and introducing the TEACH test, she has added a new oral communications class and a three-credit writing class to assist international graduate students.

The oral communications class is offered four days a week, for an hour each day. "It's like English aerobics,' says Jarvis, "you've got to be consistent, do it every day."

Undergraduates also help in this class. Each class begins with a small-group discussion about an article in that day's Daily Campus, guided by an instructor trained in teaching English as a Second Language. Working in groups of two or three graduates with one undergraduate, the rest of the hour is spent on listening and speaking skills, using two ESL textbooks.

Not only does the small-group format give the graduate students more opportunities to practice speaking, but the experience of meeting American undergraduates, the very people the ITAs will soon be teaching, is helpful. "It's more valid interacting with a real undergraduate, not an ESL teacher," says Jarvis. "It's a real exercise in communicating."

Many international graduate students have few opportunities to interact with undergraduates.

Xuedong Tian, a Ph.D. student in economics from China, who is also president of the Chinese Students Association, says he is particularly concerned about the Chinese graduate student community. "Chinese people have a tradition to speak Chinese every day," he says. "We don't have enough chance to practice our English."

He says the eight hours a week he spends in the ITA and oral communications classes have given him more confidence in speaking English.

Undergraduate Laura Anderson says that in addition to regular spoken English, she and her peers can introduce international students to American slang. "It's different from what they may read in a textbook," she says.

Improving the climate
Undergraduate involvement in the program has been so successful that Jarvis now has a waiting list of undergraduate students who would like to participate. And instead of the attrition that was common a few years ago, graduate students continue to join the classes well into the semester. "The big draw is the undergraduates," she says.

She hopes the program will help improve the general climate for ITAs. "One of the toughest problems is that students switch off when they hear an accent. They assume they won't understand," she says.

The signs are positive. Not only are the undergraduate participants more understanding, they also try to persuade their friends.

Alfano says she now appreciates the difficulties international students face. "When I hear other students complaining about ITAs, I'm like, hey, give them a chance. They're so smart. I don't think people understand they are experts in another country -- sometimes they're not respected like they should be," she says. "I've made friends. I've had a really good time."

Anderson agrees. "I've had a blast," she says. "Isn't that why you go to University, so you can meet people with different opinions, different ways of doing things?"

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu