I had the privilege of teaching English Language Learners (ELL) in an English Language Program (ELP) at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville for two years from 2016 to 2018. I taught a class entitled Special Topics that employed Experiential Learning in the form of field trips and guest speakers, with the objectives of helping students build relationships in the community, find a sense of place, and build practical English skills in the four skill areas of speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

The class was taught to beginner- through advanced-level students from a variety of countries, and the class can be adapted to cater to mixed-level abilities. The results of the class, which I taught for three semesters, were measured through student reflections, student surveys, student comments, and teacher and coordinator reflections.

The results were overwhelmingly positive with many students stating that the Special Topics class was their favorite class because it was fun, enjoyable and it helped them enhance their speaking skills and build their confidence in speaking to local, native English speakers.

From a teacher’s perspective, this class was enjoyable beyond any expectation and it helped me to build relationships in the community and find a sense of place as well. I can confidently say that I have never felt more connected and knowledgeable about a community than the one I lived in while teaching this class.

As the name of the class suggests, the Special Topics class is organized by topics and each week of the 16-week semester includes a different topic. Some common topics include: tourism and local chamber of commerce, city government, safety and police, library and information literacy, music, theater arts, advertising and marketing, psychology and counseling, art and campus art gallery, local history, museums, and more.

For each topic, a field trip is organized where students visit a local place on campus or in the community. If a field trip cannot be arranged, a guest speaker is brought in to talk about the topic in a local context.

There are specific components that make up the weekly lesson that revolves around a specific topic. First, students are asked to visit a website related to the topic. This is assigned as homework the previous week.

Students visit the website of a local place that relates to the topic such as the website for the local museum or local government. Students are given a handout with a few basic questions related to the website (questions about the main idea, the gist, and some vocabulary from the website, etc.) This helps students generate background knowledge of the topic.

Next, there is an in-class vocabulary presentation in the form of a PowerPoint with pictures that introduce useful vocabulary about the topic. The PPT can be prepared and delivered by the teacher, or students can be assigned specific topics according to their individual interests and asked to create and present the vocabulary presentation on the topic.

Following the vocabulary presentation, students briefly practice the new vocabulary in a practice activity which includes matchings, identifying, or naming the new vocabulary words with accompanying pictures and definitions.

The next part of the lesson involves the actual field trip or visit with the guest speaker. During this stage, it is helpful to provide students with a graphic organizer to organize the information they learn on the field trip. On the graphic organizer, there is a space where students can write a question about the topic.

This is a question that the students think up themselves and which they are supposed to ask while on the field trip. Having students write their own question and ask their own question while on the field trip or with the guest speaker is important for helping students build their confidence in speaking to local, native English speakers and for assisting students with building relationships in the community.

Overall, the field trip is also important for building a sense of place. Students learn their way around the community and gain inside information about local businesses, museums, and offices, including offices on campus. An additional benefit of the field trips and the guest speakers is the impact these have on creating a welcoming environment for international students within U.S. campuses and communities.

It does take the teacher and coordinator extra effort to plan and to arrange field trips and guest speakers, but it is well worth the time and effort. Community partners and guest speakers are usually enthusiastic to volunteer their time and are willing to contribute semester after semester. They are happy to engage with the students, learn from them, and share their knowledge with them.

After the experience with the field trip/guest speaker, students review what they learned on the field trip by completing the graphic organizer. This can be done as a group in class with the teacher as facilitator or it can be done in pairs or small groups with the teacher circulating between the groups. Please see here for an example of a graphic organizer.

Then, students work on a production activity in pairs or groups. This can be in the form of writing a dialogue related to the weekly topic. The dialogue includes the new vocabulary and information that was learned from the field trip or guest speaker.

The production activity can also take the form of a Task-Based Learning (TBL) activity where students plan something, such as planning a trip to a tourist destination, which would work well if the topic were tourism and chamber of commerce. In this case, the students take a field trip to visit the local chamber of commerce and pick up travel brochures, for example.

They choose a location and plan a trip with details. Another production activity can be a Venn Diagram where students compare and contrast the topic and how it relates to their native culture in comparison with American culture. For samples of a TBL activity and a dialogue, please click here.

After the students finish their production activity, the students are asked to present their activity to the class. Students can read their dialogues to the class or share their TBL activity with the class, often by using the overhead projector. This not only motivates students but also reinforces the learning.

Following the student presentations, students engage in a discussion about the topic. Students work with a partner or a small group to speak and discuss the answers to 5-10 specific questions about the topic. An important component of the discussion is the "error correction slips."

The teacher circulates to listen to the discussions and records two speaking errors that each student makes. Afterwards, the teacher gives the slips to each student and each student attempts to correct the mistakes that were made. See an example of discussion questions and the error correction slips here.

For a recommendation on further questions to include for a discussion, please send an email to the address provided at the bottom of this page in the "About the Author" section.

Finally, students engage in a reflection on the topic and the overall experience, including the experience on the field trip or with the guest speaker. The reflection can take the form of a written assignment where specific reflection questions are given as homework. The reflection can also take the form of an in-class speaking activity. One example of a speaking activity is entitled "Roundtable Reflection."

For this, each student is assigned a reflection question and is given a few minutes to think about the question. Then students form a large circle and share their answers with the class. The "roundtable" seating arrangement creates a stronger community feeling and helps consolidate the learning and the experiences revolving around the topic. It also provides a sense of closure for the weekly topic. Furthermore, it provides the reflection component which is so vital in Experiential Learning. Please see below for examples of the reflection questions.

Round Table Reflection Questions: Marketing and Advertising

  1. What happened? What did we do and learn about this week? This is a brief summary of what we did and learned.
  2. Why is this topic important and beneficial to study? Why is this topic important in the world or how can this topic help people?
  3. Identify two vocabulary words that were learned. What do they mean?
  4. Would you like to work in marketing, advertising, or communications? Why or why not?
  5. How is marketing and advertising in your country similar to or different than marketing and advertising in the USA?
  6. What is the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned about this topic?

Once the first steps to employ a Special Topics class have been taken and community partners have been established, it is feasible to implement the above content ideas. Students’ interests, majors, and hobbies can be identified ahead of time or within the first few weeks of class, and those topics can be utilized in developing subsequent topics for later weeks in the class or for the next semester.

By including students interests in the course topics, the content becomes more relevant to the students and they are likely to engage more deeply with the topic and content.

I hope this narrative has been helpful in providing an overview of the Special Topics class and I hope that it is easy to see how this class can assist students in building relationships in the community and finding a sense of place.

Thank you for reading! I hope you can try Experiential Learning and create a Special Topics class with your students! I would like to send a special “thank you” to the ELL program coordinator, Mela Lewandowski, for designing this Special Topics class, for motivating me to try it, and for the ongoing support and confidence to carry it out. Your innovative spirit is much appreciated and admired!