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A Passion for Learning While Serving
Professor Susan Plann of the Department of Applied Linguistics and Teaching English as a Second Language (Photo by Rich Schmitt)

A Passion for Learning While Serving

As the driving force behind a string of courses aimed at strengthening UCLA's ties to the Spanish-speaking community in Los Angeles, Plann was recently named by the Academic Senate as the faculty winner of the 2008 Fair and Open Academic Environment Award.

Reflection is key to the integration, the link between classroom theory and the community.

This article was first published by UCLA Today Online on May 20, 2008.

By Ajay Singh

LAST WINTER, Tatyana Koneva, a senior majoring in international development, visited University High School near campus to explore a possible career as a teacher. She was immediately asked to work with three boys from Mexico who spoke no English.

It was the kind of trial by fire that would have intimidated any aspiring teacher, even one who speaks Spanish, as does the Russian-born Koneva. But, improvising with flash cards and vocabulary lists, Koneva managed over nine weeks to teach the boys to communicate in basic English.

Koneva owes her pedagogical triumph to "Language Exchange," an innovative course that pairs UCLA students of Spanish with Latino students studying English as a second language. The interaction provides the Latino students with role models and gives the UCLA students an opportunity to not only improve their Spanish but learn more about Latino culture.

"Language Exchange" was created by Susan Plann, a professor in the Department of Applied Linguistics and Teaching English as a Second Language. Plann has long had a passion for service learning, a linking of academic curriculum with meaningful community service.

As the driving force behind a string of courses aimed at strengthening UCLA's ties to the Spanish-speaking community in Los Angeles, Plann was recently named by the Academic Senate as the faculty winner of the 2008 Fair and Open Academic Environment Award.

The annual award by the Senate's Committee on Diversity and Equal Opportunity honors four outstanding members of the campus community for promoting a fair, open and diverse academic environment.

This year, the other winners are Dena Chertoff, graduate counselor in the Department of Psychology; Dennis Jay Montoya, a graduate student; and Christina Walter, an undergraduate student. The awards, each with a prize of about $2,000, will be presented at Covel Commons on May 22.

In 1994, Plann taught the Spanish and Portuguese Department's first-ever service-learning course, "Latinos, Literacy and Linguistics." The course, which has become a model for other institutions such as Cal State L.A., integrates linguistics and literacy theory with volunteer work at a literacy center for Spanish-speaking adults.

Service learning requires students to think, talk or write about these real-life experiences. "In that sense, it's very different from, say, volunteering in a soup kitchen," Plann said. "Reflection is key to the integration, the link between classroom theory and the community."

Plann, who earned a Ph.D. in Romance linguistics and literature from UCLA, started out herself on a highly theoretical academic footing. After years of teaching in the Spanish and Portuguese Department, she began to develop and apply her ideas about language with a real-world emphasis, helping countless students make the most invaluable contributions to the community.

"Passionate and brilliant, a true bridge-builder" is how one of Plann's former students, Caitlin Patler, described her in a letter to the Senate committee in nominating her for the award. "It is in great part because of Dr. Plann's guidance and mentorship that I have decided to go into university research and teaching."

This quarter, Plann is teaching a service learning-oriented, second-language-acquisition course to graduate students, including two ethnic Japanese, one Turk, an African and two Latinos. The Japanese, both teaching assistants, are, in turn, designing courses for students learning Japanese as a second language.

Meanwhile, the Turkish student is using Skype, the popular software program that allows users to make calls over the Internet, to connect UCLA students studying Turkish as a second language with students in Istanbul learning English as a second language. The idea is to help both groups develop their respective second languages.

"This Turkish student is in touch with a Near Eastern languages professor who is very excited about what he's doing with service learning," said Plann. "I'm confident that pretty soon there will be more language classes that include service learning in a variety of departments."

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