Saturday, August 13

Building community by teaching English, especially in times of pandemic

Learning a language requires self-confidence, courage, and the support of a community. Catholic Charities Community Services, through its International Center, has offered ESOL English programs for immigrant adults in New York City and the Lower Hudson River Valley for more than 10 years.

At our lower Manhattan headquarters, we offer classes and programs to a diverse group of adult learners from many cultures and neighborhoods. Not all students can attend these classes, especially those who may have little or no experience in a formal educational setting or those who have fears about their immigration status, family obligations, health problems, or difficult work hours. To reach these learners, instructors from our International Center go to their neighborhoods and use their recommendations to design programs. In these ESOL classrooms we build community by teaching English.

In our “community programs,” students are engaged from the start. We ask them about their experience and goals as we design the courses; thus giving the agency the opportunity to make sure students get what they need. We use their feedback to make class materials meaningful and relevant and for them to gain communication skills that they can use in their daily lives, and the confidence to become active and engaged members of their communities.

No matter what the situation outside of the classroom, all students in our programs are supported and encouraged in the classroom. Building this sense of community is a vital component of a language teaching classroom and providing a warm, welcoming and safe space for students to speak and share their experiences is a fundamental part of our programming.

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This sense of community has become even more important during remote programming, which our International Center developed when the COVID pandemic hit New York. Although we had to make an abrupt switch to online classes in the spring of 2020, many students are now comfortable and familiar with using technology and are excited about acquiring skills that can help them with work.

Provide individual support so that students can connect and spend class time reviewing the basic functions of the learning platform. Zoom and the proper behavior and etiquette of using the online communication system has helped students re-create the sense of community they had when they met in person. Now, many students prefer online programming; They have the support and connection they need to learn without the challenges of childcare and commuting to the classroom.

With a sense of community in the classroom, all students will feel welcome and will be able to succeed.

Elaine Roberts is director of the International Center for Catholic Charities

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