I’m a senior undergraduate student majoring in English at Doane University located in Crete, Nebraska. For those of you thinking, “Where?” Crete is located just southwest of the state capitol in Lincoln. Home to Farmland Foods (where as many as seventeen languages are spoken) and Nestle Purina Petcare Co,, Crete’s abundance of available industrial jobs is a significant contributing factor to the community’s diversity. This semester, I became involved in one of the Crete Public Schools special programs that offers free adult ESL classes. As part of the Adult Basic Education (AE) program, the classes offered by Crete Public Schools—including Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced English, as well as GED and Citizenship courses—provide education for roughly 200-250 adult Crete community members per year. Volunteering as a classroom aid in this program was an incredibly rewarding and eye-opening experience for me, so I thought I would take the opportunity to write my first HASTAC blog post about the most valuable insights I gained from the class.
While I’d been aware of Crete’s cultural diversity, (the town’s population is 35% Latino) I could never have guessed how many countries are represented within our community. Of the 202 students enrolled in classes this year, there were individuals from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Sudan, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Colombia. Meeting these students, hearing their stories and learning more about their backgrounds made me think back to my junior-year Liberal Arts Requirement (LAR) 303 seminar, “Rethinking Borders.” During that course, we talked about a lot about the town-gown divide—for students like me who’ve always lived and worked on campus, Doane can feel a lot like its own little island, distinctly separate from the rest of Crete. Volunteering in the ESL program broke down that barrier for me, and taught me how to teach and communicate across other kinds of borders as well.
A bit of background information here—at this point in time, language barriers made me incredibly nervous. Earlier in the year, during my first trip abroad to India, two of my classmates and I ended up being separated from our group and taken on a terrifying rickshaw ride through Chennai—all because, while the two of them were taking a photo, our driver had tried asking me something and, after failing to understand him three times, I just nodded my head and was like, “Uh-huh, yeah, sure!” So, even though I had taken two and a half years of Spanish, and had some past experience working with students whose first languages were not English through my position as a peer consultant in the campus writing center, I was still anxious about being able to communicate with the class (who, unlike the advanced international students on campus, were beginners, some of who had only minimal educational background in general.) In particular, this anxiety applied to my interactions with a student named Klo, a Karen-speaker from Myanmar, who regularly needed me to translate classroom directions for him.
While I also expected cultural differences to pose a challenge to my classroom acclimation, I was surprised to find the opposite to be true. All of the students were very welcoming towards me, eager to share their cultures with a stranger, and frequently brought food and other cultural artifacts from home to share with me. This sense of hospitality made me feel comfortable enough to overcome my initial hesitance, after which I began the process of figuring out how best to connect with the class. Though I was generally able to rely on Ruth (the class’s teacher), Google translate, and my own minimal knowledge of Spanish to engage with the Spanish-speaking students, I had to come up with much more creative methods of communication to teach and build a classroom relationship with Klo. I had never realized the full extent of how limiting language can be until encountering the frustrations of translating classroom instructions/conversations for Klo. Even though he had both a physical Karen-English picture dictionary and a translating app on his phone, there was often no direct translation for whatever it was I wanted to communicate to him, and how can you talk about something your language doesn't have a word for?
Technology played an instrumental helping me bridge this gap—and until one day when I forgot my phone, I hadn’t even realized how heavily I’d been relying on the internet during my sessions with Klo. Every time the Karen-English translator app didn’t have a word for what I wanted to say, I turned to online images and videos to convey meanings and messages. Further, our technological resources were invaluable in helping us establish a classroom relationship in spite of not being able to verbally communicate with each other. Whereas Ruth could ask the other students personal questions in Spanish, it was significantly harder for Klo to convey anything about his life to us. While there is certainly a lot more I would have liked to have asked Klo about his country and background, we were able to make several small breakthroughs over the course of the semester. Using Google Maps, Klo was able to show me exactly where he was from, as well as the route he took when he first came to the United States. Later, during our unit on family-related vocab words, I asked Klo if he had any pictures of his family. Though he was confused at first, he understood what I wanted to know when I started showing him pictures of my own family on my phone. Using images from his photo gallery, Klo told me the story of his family. He showed me a picture of his wife, Mary, and her four children in a cemetery, pointing back and forth between the grave they all stood around and the image of a husband/father in his Karen dictionary to indicate that Mary’s previous husband had died. He then showed me newer photos of a younger girl, pointing back and forth between himself and her to tell me that she was his daughter. Additionally, Klo was able to share some of his culture with me via social media by showing me Facebook videos of Karen performers, cooking shows, and a traditional Karen wedding, as well as current issues in Myanmar concerning the persecution of The Rohingya.
Reflecting on the semester, I realize how crucial technology was to Klo’s progress in his English proficiency. Not only were online visual aids, videos, and the Karen translation app remarkably effective when used to teach vocabulary words, but without those other technological resources, we might never have been able to establish such a strong teacher-student relationship in the face of a language barrier. This got me thinking more about how I might have incorporated technology in teaching the rest of our class, and also what role it might play in any future ESL classes I become involved in. Based on my own experience learning a second language, I think virtual platforms for game-based learning (such as Kahoot! and Duolingo) would work well across age groups, especially because they’re low-risk and would provide students’ with a learning environment where they feel safer making mistakes. Also, thinking back on my experience this semester, as well as my time working with international students in the writing center, I’ve found that ESL learners benefit greatly from simply listening to native speakers, so perhaps listening to short podcasts or even having students record their own would be another fun and effective way to bring technology into the ESL classroom. Finally, (having just completed a Film Studies course last term) I think that showing video/movie clips would offer useful ways to both highlight and spark classroom conversations about subject material.
All in all, I gained so much more from this experience than I ever dreamed I would. Not only did I walk away from class with potential teaching strategies and invaluable classroom experiences in my pocket, but I also came away with an entirely new perspective on the community that’s been my home for the past three years, the people with whom I share it, and of myself. For some of the students that I met, life in their home countries was all about survival, putting education very low on their list of priorities until arriving in the United States. More than once, I was told by my students how “muy afortunada” I am to be going to college. As a first generation college student, I’d heard this many times before from my family members—but hearing it from my ESL students made me reflect more critically about the access I’ve had to education and the other privileges that that education has made available to me. While possibly the most obvious conclusion I could have drawn from this experience, a heightened recognition of and sense of gratitude for the opportunities I’ve had in life is perhaps the most important thing I’ll take my first semester of ESL class.