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Talking Outside the Box

A Paper Airplanes Conversation Group in Action!

· Tutors,Students,English

“I think my group does well because we all have a lot of respect for one another, and my students come to the conversation group motivated to learn and practice. Our group dynamic has changed in the sense that we’ve just become comfortable with one another the more we’ve met, and we’re friends now.”

Tutor Bianca and her two students have been meeting for over a year in one of Paper Airplanes’ conversation groups. Bianca and her student Ahmad agreed to talk to us about their experience and help us get a feel for why conversation groups--and specifically theirs--are so beneficial!

Ahmad is from Syria and lives in Turkey now. He first joined Paper Airplanes in 2017 after learning about us on Facebook and completed the fall semester as a regular student, then has continued to study through the conversation group. Texas native Bianca has been a tutor since Fall 2017 and a tutor coordinator since Spring 2018, and when she isn’t tutoring with PA she attends college in Arizona.

The PA English Program has been running conversation groups since 2017 to give students additional opportunities to practice their speaking skills, after hearing from students that they wanted to be able to develop more in this area. Ahmad notes that in traditional classes, “we usually learn grammar, read texts, and listen to audio clips, but we don’t go through long conversations...however, being in a conversation group closes that loophole and helps to speak effectively and learn daily informal language.” Similarly, Bianca feels that the traditional PA lesson plan isn’t always conducive to spontaneous conversation, as the expectation of completing the lesson and progressing in the program can limit her ability as a tutor to dedicate space to students’ needs and goals.

Originally open only to Upper-Intermediate and Advanced level students, the groups are offered as of this semester to Lower-Intermediate and Beginner students as well. Groups usually consist of 4-5 participants (1-2 tutors and 3-4 students) who self-select to participate in the groups as a supplement to their normal classes. The low tutor:student ratio helps give students individualized attention while also providing students with the opportunity to teach and learn from each other. Last semester we had 24 conversation groups running, and we’d love to build upon that in the future.

As the group is meant to be organic and open to the group’s interests, there isn’t currently any homework or testing. English Program staff do have some suggestions for group leaders to follow in our curriculum, but with the goal of allowing groups to discuss any topic of mutual interest--Ahmad and Bianca’s group has covered a range of topics from weddings and music to politics and elections, and while sometimes topics span multiple sessions, they usually choose a new topic every week. The most surprising topic covered so far? American slang! Bianca is multilingual and knows firsthand the challenge and importance of learning slang or youth culture along with a language. To that end, she’s organized lessons to cover American slang, dating culture, music genres, and text talk.

She says, “I’m so proud when my students use the slang words in context during our conversation group. I think their favorite expression is ‘throwing shade!’”

In preparing for her group’s sessions, Bianca starts by asking her students what they would like to cover and tries to incorporate their suggestions into a conversation. For example, she recently created vocabulary and a dialogue after Ahmad asked to cover vocabulary related to running for political office. Regarding her approach, Bianca says:


“I strive to make my lessons as culturally relevant and up-to-date as possible. I always think, “If my students were to travel to America or another Western country, what are some things they should know to make their experience successful and comfortable? My goals are to always maintain an open, non-judgemental atmosphere that is fun and conducive to learning. It is so important to me that my students are learning, and, if they’re not, I want to know that as soon as possible so I can do what I can to make the situation better.”


Conversation group sessions aren’t necessarily just discussion either: Bianca brainstorms topics prior to each lesson and writes out lesson plans, which always include key vocabulary and a sample dialogue where the students fill in the blanks. They start off each lesson with life updates and, recently, a word game. Bianca chooses a letter and gives her students several categories to fill in using that letter in sixty seconds. They usually play five rounds, and according to Bianca, “it’s a fantastic activity to wake up their brains, and they can get competitive!” She and her students love that no two sessions are the same, and that they can use the material she prepares or spend a whole meeting on life updates if it feels more natural, for example talking about the Syrian food one student cooked.


Bianca and her students are clearly dedicated to their group, and both Bianca and Ahmad had wonderful things to say about their time together. Ahmad appreciates the structure Bianca brings to their sessions as well as the group’s flexibility and understanding. Bianca also highly values their group’s flexibility, but even more significant for her is the bond her students have forged: “I think my group does well because we all have a lot of respect for one another, and my students come to the conversation group motivated to learn and practice. Our group dynamic has changed in the sense that we’ve just become comfortable with one another the more we’ve met, and we’re friends now.”


Bianca and Ahmad’s group is a fantastic example of the many ways tutors and students in the Paper Airplanes community go above and beyond the boundaries of a traditional classroom to not only learn, but make deep and lasting connections. We’ve loved hearing about tutors who have written letters of support for students as they apply to jobs and universities, tutors and students meeting up in person, meeting each other’s families, and generally forming relationships that bridge borders and oceans. We are always looking for new ways to facilitate these connections, and are grateful that our community is made up of dedicated individuals like Bianca and her students who continually inspire us to grow.

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