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Guest Post: Language ETC

Language ETC , a Catalogue nonprofit that will be re-featured in the 2013-14 Catalogue for Philanthropy, shares this guest post from their award-winning LETC Teachers’ Corner blog. Since 1993, Language, Education, and Technology Center (Language ETC), a community-based program, has offered English and literacy training to low-income adult immigrants in the greater Washington area using volunteer teachers and tutors.

Tea and Sympathy: Building Community in the Adult ESL Classroom

By Cathy Sunshine, LETC Volunteer

Don’t tell anyone, but we’ve been having tea in the classroom at break time lately. Sometimes cupcakes too.

It started as a way to keep warm. The heat in the church has been iffy over the last two months. Puffy coats and woolly scarves have been a popular fashion statement in our classroom. One of our students is an avid baker, and he sometimes brings in goodies. Then one evening another student brought a thermos of piping hot tea to share.

It made for a cozy atmosphere. That got me thinking about the importance of warmth in the classroom, not just the kind from the furnace – which seems to be functioning better lately – but also the social kind. What motivates students to leave their homes on cold, dark winter nights and trek to class, four nights a week for 12 weeks? Or give up their weekends? English, yes, but it’s got to be more than that.

I think the answer is the community they find here. For recent immigrants, LETC is a welcoming place in a society that at times may seem indifferent or hostile. For some of our students, school is the principal, if not the only, place where they can make friends with native English speakers and with immigrants from countries other than their own.

Why is this important? Gretchen Bitterlin, an ESL teacher trainer in San Diego, notes that a sense of community in the classroom favors student persistence – that is, it keeps students coming regularly. She wrote on the Ventures e-newsletter:

One day, I walked into my family literacy ESL class, and it was quieter than usual. Delia, who had almost never missed a class, was absent. After I asked if anyone had any problems over the weekend, the students reported that Delia’s 5-year-old daughter had fallen and suffered a brain injury and was in intensive care at the hospital. Within minutes, the students took up a collection to help Delia in the weeks ahead, since she would not be able to work. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the students and their networking to help out a fellow student. The incident exemplified the strong sense of community that existed in that class. This provided an atmosphere that facilitated learning and persistence at a higher level than I had seen in previous classes. When students get to know each other like a family, they depend on each other for moral support and continue to come to school, even when times are difficult.

How, then, to achieve this kind of fellowship in class? One problem is that while a feeling of community encourages regular attendance, regular attendance is needed to build community. Classes can’t bond when students show up irregularly, as happens often in adult ESL. Classes may fill slowly, as people trickle in over the first couple of weeks, and they may also dwindle as the term wears on. Lucy Hamachek, who teaches the Advanced Workplace class, notes that building community is hard without that critical mass.

Some of this is beyond our control as teachers. But there are definitely things we can do. Mary Janice Dicello teaches Basic A at Language ETC, for students who are complete beginners in English. She likes to set a positive tone early:

The first few Basic classes always begin with introductions, including first and last names and countries. We play memory games to encourage all our students to learn the names of their classmates and use desk cards with first names on them. We count the students from each country and cheer for the country with the most students, and laugh with and show sympathy for the student who has no one from his country. We use country flags, and students learn to say the colors of their flags. They enjoy finding their own countries on a world map. We use a magnifying glass to find tiny El Salvador, the country that usually has the largest number of students in our class.

As teachers, we try to set an atmosphere of respect and patience, laced with good humor – sometimes silliness – that serves as a model for how we expect our students to behave toward one another. It really works. The quick ones help the struggling ones, and students seem to incorporate everyone into their break-time groups. And finally we take a group photo that they all treasure as a memory of their first English class in America and the friends they made.



You can read the full post on LETC’s blog here. To learn more about Language ETC, and other Catalogue nonprofits that provide adult education, check out our online catalogue and volunteer opportunities!