Expanding Local-Global Perspectives in The Conversation Tree Program

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The Conversation Tree banner, group photo in library
Friday, April 29th

By Jacob Sclar '22, B.A., Journalism and Media Studies, School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program, Rutgers - New Brunswick

For students taking part in the Rutgers Graduate School of Education program called The Conversation Tree, the typical four-walled classroom is a thing of the past. Students enrolled in this unique experience interact with people in the local community and beyond who are looking for opportunities to practice English language skills. These participants, mostly immigrants and some short-term visitors to the United States, join to expand their linguistic and cultural fluency.

Interested students register for Community-Based Language Learning (05:300:406). The course prepares them with information about local community demographics, theories of linguistic and culturally sustaining pedagogy, and a brief overview of the language and culture learning process as students prepare to become Conversation Facilitators. Students learn to recognize and implement an asset-based perspective, which centers community strengths and resources. For eight weeks of the 15-week course, students facilitate informal conversations sessions with community members called Conversation Cafés. Session topics for the Conversation Cafés include health, labor rights, gastronomy, hobbies, travel, and other interesting and fundamental themes.

In the Spring of 2022, the settings for these Conversation Cafés were both virtual (by Zoom) and in-person at the New Brunswick Free Public Library. The online sessions draw a diverse global crowd, with participants joining from different states, as well as different countries. Participants have joined the virtual conversations from as far away as India, in spite of the challenge that the sessions were at the middle of the night for them.

Participants who come to the in-person Conversation Cafés represent a plethora of different nations. In any given session, people from the U.S., Mexico, Honduras, Turkey, Korea, China, Iran, Colombia, and numerous other countries are seated at the same tables with a common goal: to learn from and with each other in these relaxed and informal settings.

Marina Feldman is a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Education who has taught the Community-Based Language Learning course for several years. She also leads the embedded Conversation Cafés, which occur during class time. 

Feldman’s interactions with local community-based organizations and the program’s participants have shaped her thoughts and views on the local immigrant community.

Feldman shares, “the program put me in touch with so many different people from diverse backgrounds, so it really helped me complexify what I mean when I say, ‘immigrant community.’ I think what they [the participants] all have in common is a willingness to invest their time and effort and to put themselves out there to engage in conversation – even when they have negative prior experiences trying to practice English.”

As an international student from Brazil, Feldman feels that there are some connections between her own story of coming to this country - and the experiences of the participants who show up each week.

“There are definitely things in common between my experiences and that of participants, and I try to draw on that to make connections and share examples,” Feldman said. 

“However, I also remind myself of how different the migration experience can be based on social class, race, country of origin, gender, and visa status.”

Students who become Conversation Facilitators have many positive things to say about their time conversing with participants. Ramya, a student who spent two semesters in the program, first as a Conversation Facilitator and then as a Team Leader, says, “being a facilitator gave me more insight into some of the day-to-day experiences that immigrants may face. Many things that the participants in the Cafés had to think about were second nature to me. For example, making small talk with a cashier. This gave me an opportunity to check my privilege and be more mindful about my interactions.”

For eight weeks, faculty and students prepare lesson plans that they will facilitate for the Conversation Cafés. They create PowerPoint slides and other visual materials to be used virtual or in-person, to support the comprehensibility of the topics and language used. When meeting in person, the room is organized with small tables for small groups.
At each table are whiteboards, pens, papers, maps, and dictionaries that aid in quick translations and illustrations. 
Facilitators often use props; for example, one of the most popular props found at each table is the “cup of conversation,” which is a coffee mug containing strips of paper with numerous questions for participants and facilitators to answer together. This activity is often used as a warm-up and consistently spurs engaging conversations and interest in learning from one another’s experiences. 

Seemal, a student in the program, claims that talking with people from cultures distinct from the ones she has grown up familiar with has been one of the most enjoyable parts of the program. 

According to her, “my experience as a facilitator has been extremely fulfilling because of the connections I have been able to form with participants of this program. Overall, it has highlighted the interconnectedness of all the cultures that make up the New Brunswick community.” 

Seemal also said, “I am bilingual [in English and Urdu]. However, Urdu is not the primary language of the New Brunswick community. I wish I were more skilled in my Spanish speaking because it would have been very handy for seamless translations to participants who are novice English speakers.”

Given the demographics of the New Brunswick community, many community members are Spanish speakers. While in a Conversation Café, in addition to hearing English, there may be lively conversation in Spanish and other languages. This reflects the program practice of translanguaging (developed by Ofelia Garcia and other scholars) which acknowledges the rich linguistic resources we all bring to our interactions. All of our linguistic resources contribute to our ability to think, interact, and take action. Through the coursework, guiding principles, and implementation of the Conversation Cafés, the goal is to dismantle the centrality and dominance of English, and instead sustain and celebrate all community languages. In past semesters, there have been Conversation Cafés in Spanish, Mandarin, and Arabic, and prior to COVID, Multilingual Conversation Cafés were offered where participants could enter and practice one of the many languages spoken by community members and students. 

Through the program, both students and community participants are exposed to new languages and cultural beliefs and practices.

This is one of the mutually beneficial results of the Conversation Cafés: through networks created at each session, Rutgers students gain insights into local-global perspectives and experiences without leaving New Brunswick, and community participants enter English speaking conversations full of linguistic and cultural input with community and Rutgers partners.

In this sense, The Conversation Tree serves as a bridge to share a multitude of points of view between Rutgers students and community members. It is a place of convergence, where students and participants discuss and experience the realities of a global diaspora in a local context.

In the words of Marina Feldman, “At the end of the day, having everyone share is what makes it a multidirectional learning space.”

Feldman summarized the experience of having a global milieu of participants sitting at the table during these Conversation Cafés and said, “when I get to simply come to a Café and participate, it’s such a pleasant experience. It makes me really appreciate all the joy there can be in just sitting with people, sharing, and supporting each other.”

For additional information about the Conversation Tree Program or to become involved, contact Professor Mary Curran of the Rutgers Graduate School of Education at: mary.curran@gse.rutgers.edu

Photo: Community participants and Rutgers Conversation Facilitators at the final Conversation Café in April 2022 at The New Brunswick Free Public Library