Open to the possibilities: reconnecting with students through languages and cultures

Two cartoon figures, one has a speech bubble with an English flag above their head, the other has a speech bubble with Swedish, Japanese, German and French flags above their head.
"Talking in Languages 2.0" by zinjixmaggir is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Dr Kylie Giblett teaches in Germanic Studies in the School of Languages and Cultures. I met Kylie at a recent teaching day for the School, where Kylie brought in a panel of students from across the school and cheered them on while they told their teachers which assessments they found useful and what their learning needs are in the new hybrid environment of higher education. Kylie’s enthusiasm for learning, teaching and the students themselves is palpable; in this article I chat with Kylie about her insights into why learning a language is so important, and about what students need to reconnect with teachers and peers.

Leanne Stevenson: What experiences have you had teaching a language? 

Kylie Giblett: I love teaching a language. Students really enjoy learning languages – they often haven’t had the chance to learn a language at school, so this is something new and exciting that we can offer them at university. It’s great to introduce students to another culture as well, to see their horizons broadening, their views widening, as they realise, ‘oh yes there are other ways of thinking out there, and different ways of doing things’. At the university, we’re always talking about cultural competence as one of our graduate qualities, in the School of Languages and Cultures, we live cultural competence all the time. We’re all from various places around the world and everyone speaks multiple languages apart from their native language, so we are constantly having intercultural interactions in our everyday lives. When we teach, we convey that to our students, so that they develop their own cultural competence, get to know some things about other cultures apart from their own, and also broaden their ideas about their own culture. 

Learning a language teaches you to think in a different way. It’s not just learning about diverse cultural artefacts, you think in a unique way when you’re speaking another language and each language has its own slightly different way of thinking. When you learn that way of thinking, you become aware that you could think differently about lots of things – it’s a skill that is transferable in many other areas of life.

Leanne: What students need in the classroom has changed quite a lot, their struggles and the barriers have intensified, how have you responded to this? 

Kylie: The cultural competence that is such a key part of our School and our approach to language teaching has been really helpful here – it makes you perhaps more sensitive to how people might experience the same event (in this case the pandemic) differently depending on where they are coming from, which might be influenced by a range of factors from cultural and socio-economic backgrounds to their age and stage in life. My response involves an emphasis on pastoral care, which has always been a significant part of my teaching philosophy. I think an emphasis on pastoral care fosters a better environment in the classroom, making it a place where students know that you care about them. I always approach each student as a person, they’re not just an administrative unit that brings in X dollars to the university and is taking up X amount of my time. I treat them as individuals, as real people – I try to know their names as quickly as possible and then address them by their name, so that they understand, ‘I’m important to her, she actually knows who I am’. This connection helps learning, but it also means I know when someone is struggling and I can link them in with the services we have at the university, like the Learning Hub and the Student Counselling Service, which can help them manage their studies better. 

For younger students who might have done the HSC (Higher School Certificate) during the pandemic, there are a lot of organisational and social skills that they would normally have learnt that they haven’t been able to because many of them have been stuck at home in their bedroom for a couple of years. This means, for example, that I may have to be clearer in my instructions. You may feel like you’ve repeated the instructions to the assessment 10 times already; repeat them 11 times and verbally, in writing, and in different spots.

Through no fault of their own there’s some organisational learning that a lot of students have not had the opportunity to go through. They also haven’t had as much of a chance to socialise as young people would normally have, and many of them have also had negative pandemic experiences that make it difficult for them to trust that things are going to be okay.

As teachers and coordinators, we’ve had to be more aware that there might be some things going on outside the classroom that are affecting student learning. We need to cut people a bit of slack and acknowledge the experience that they’ve had. I also believe that creating a culture of respect in the classroom will help students to re-engage with the social life of the university and feel that this is a place where they are accepted. Hopefully, the challenges we are currently experiencing will fade behind us, but it’s something that’s still going on right now. 

Leanne: What did you learn teaching online? 

Kylie: Before the pandemic, there was a lot of talk about a big new world of online learning as though this was going to be the future of teaching, replacing the traditional interaction of teachers and students in the classroom. For me, the pandemic has shown that there is no substitute for in-person teacher and student interactions and the in-person interaction of students with each other. Creating that community of learning is so much more organic in person, because you are getting a lot more information from each other; all that unspoken information that helps to bond you together. Obviously, the ability to teach online has been a blessing during the pandemic, and we worked really hard to create a community of learners and scholars online. 

However, having said that, I’ve learnt a lot of tricks teaching online that I really liked. In my online teaching, I have been using Padlet a lot for spontaneous writing tasks. Previously, students would do those tasks on their computer or on a piece of paper, and I wouldn’t have as much of a sense of how their writing was progressing, but now they do the task on Padlet, so I can see how things are going in real time. Because posting on Padlet is anonymous, it’s actually a better method of getting students to express themselves in a foreign language, as the threshold in terms of potential embarrassment is much lower. I’m glad to have had the online experience to introduce me to some of those tools.

There are quite a few things that I’ll take from online teaching and keep in the face-to-face classroom. The experience of online teaching was valuable in that it really opened my mind to the possibility of doing things differently.

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