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Behind the Scenes with Raven Chakerian, Spanish and Italian instructor

Oregon State instructor Raven Chakerian is seated in a red office chair in front of a wall with two large windows. She wears a red and white patterned sleeveless shirt, and she holds her arms loosely crossed on the table in front of her. Raven is smiling at the brown-haired person seated across the table from her, whose head is partially visible from behind.

“There are no shortcuts to language; you have to put in the time,” says Raven Chakerian. She learned this firsthand, having immersed herself in language-learning across the globe from her own time as an undergrad until present day as an instructor of Spanish and Italian at Oregon State Ecampus.

By Julie Cooper
July 30, 2018

Teaching immediately-applicable skills and guiding students on their multilingual journeys? Now you’re speaking Raven Chakerian’s language. For the past four years, Raven has been an instructor of Spanish and Italian at Oregon State University, and she previously served as an undergraduate advisor in World Languages and Cultures in the OSU College of Liberal Arts. She realized her passion for languages and communication early on. Even outside of her formal education in Spanish, with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon and a master’s degree from Portland State University, Raven pursued language learning through travel, community development, and social interactions in multiple countries, including Guatemala, Ecuador, Zimbabwe and France. When she joined Oregon State Ecampus five years ago, teaching online was like learning a new language – conquering its challenges and new possibilities, she’s working toward fluency. 


Briefly describe your role as an Ecampus instructor.

“I teach online full time, which means four or five classes each term. I mostly teach from home but come to campus for a lot of meetings. I rarely meet my students in person but feel like I get to know most of them anyway. Teaching online is very different from teaching on campus, and I definitely feel like I have more individualized relationships with students rather than having a sense of my class as a whole. I like this more personalized approach to teaching but I also try to find ways to give my students opportunities to interact with each other, because this interaction is an important part of building up a learning community and creating positive bonds around learning.”

What inspired your career path?

“I knew I wanted to be involved with languages on some level pretty early on and always looked for ways to expose myself to languages through study, travel or social interactions. My first career was not as a language teacher but rather as a bilingual social worker. I really loved this work but found it hard to land a position with more than two weeks of vacation a year. This was more limiting than I wanted it to be. My search for a career with a more flexible lifestyle that still involved working with people and languages led me back to graduate school and to teaching Spanish (and later Italian). I’d had so many great language teachers along the way, and this helped inspire me as well. Before arriving at OSU, I taught at Portland State University for five years, but never online. When I came to OSU, my contract included one online class per year. This was my introduction to online teaching. I was initially doubtful about teaching language online. I couldn’t imagine how it could possibly work. I had access to such excellent professional development opportunities through OSU Ecampus that I started to feel excited about the challenge of teaching online, and doing it well. My first term did not go as well as I hoped, but that actually just inspired me to want to try harder and master the art of online teaching! I dove head on into every professional development opportunity related to online education that came my way until I finally felt comfortable with the online environment. I still come across challenges, just like I would in the on-campus classroom, but it would be boring if I didn’t!”

What would you say is the most fascinating aspect of this field of study?

“Languages are fun and interesting above all else! In my mind, communication is the key to opportunities of all kinds. The amount of possibilities that open up when you can communicate in more than one language is so exciting.”

What do you like most about instructing Spanish and Italian online?

“I love that language is so tangible and concrete. I can enjoy the theoretical side of things but I am essentially more of a concrete person, and teaching a skill that is directly applicable to life is exciting to me! I also love seeing students get excited about language, especially when they come into the class just looking at it as a required course.”

The study of languages is often very social and people-oriented. How do you connect with and personalize the learning experience for online students who you may never meet in person?

“Students work with each other to complete weekly speaking practice assignments. They use Skype, FaceTime, cell phones or whatever applications they choose. In many of my classes, they also interview native speakers. They work together on group projects and take their oral exams in partners. I leave video feedback for my students on most assignments and meet with students on Skype for office hours.” 

How can taking language courses in Spanish or Italian help students in their futures? What types of jobs are students set up for by studying a second (or multiple) languages?

“Languages can help in essentially all jobs. Most employers will take a bilingual person over a monolingual person if all other skill sets are equal. Some studies on bilinguals show that bilinguals are more creative, and many employers have started to recognize this. Employers also know that they can teach many duties in a relatively short time but there are no shortcuts to language. You have to put in the time.”

What advice would you like to give to students?

“Don’t be afraid to reach out to your teacher. Ask a lot of questions – don’t hold back! If there is a discussion board in your course for asking questions, ask there. Usually, a lot of other students have the same question. Make yourself a schedule for every week and plan (in writing) which tasks you will complete each day so that the work is distributed throughout the week in a way that works for you and meets deadlines. Try to have everything done a day before the deadline so you have room for the unexpected.”

How have you evolved as an educator since you began teaching classes online with Ecampus?

“I have shifted from being intimidated by to being curious about educational technology. I have also let go of the idea that I am at center stage. In online classes, the teacher is much less ‘visible’ in many ways. Students are much more self-directed and actually do a lot of teaching each other, too. I feel like my teaching is more like coaching than anything now.”

Describe your work as chair of the Online Education Committee. What inspired you to take on that role, and why is the work of the committee important to you?

“This committee has been very rewarding. I was asked to chair the committee when the former chair retired from OSU. I had been a committee member for a year at that time. I appreciated the leadership opportunity and decided to accept the challenge. I get antsy when there is a lot of talk and little action on committees, so I liked being able to redirect the committee to a more task-oriented work group. We have been doing some interesting work related to how online teachers are observed, evaluated, recognized and promoted (among other projects).”

What are your favorite activities outside of work?

“I love to be outside and away from my computer. I walk or bike every day, often in the hills near my house. I also love to dance and hear live music. I can be a total nerd and spend hours doing puzzles or reading, but I also love to be social and have get-togethers with friends and family. Most of my family (siblings and parents) live within an hour of me and that keeps me living in Oregon. I love to travel and squeeze that in wherever, whenever and however I can. My husband is a chef and does most of the cooking, and luckily I love to eat and am a happy dishwasher. Although that list looks pretty long, most of my time outside of work and daily exercise actually goes to spending time with my almost-seven-year-old daughter.”

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