October 9, 2007

Job meets study

Posted in Community Education, English as a second language at 7: 30 pm by MK

One of the workshops I teach for Cornell U. Cooperative Extension (CCE) is a basic money management class.  I teach adults how to create a family spending plan, including how to create a budget, track spending, and reduce household expenses.  I work off a curriculum that was developed by the experts at Cornell University.  Of course this curriculum occasionally needs to be massaged to meet the goals of the group I’m teaching.  And today, this couldn’t have been more true.

I taught the workshop today to 15 people referred to me by the U.S. Committee of Immigrants & Refugees (USCRI).  As they came into the library where I was holding class, I realized that three of them had once sat around the table at A. & K.’s house as I taught English lessons.  It was great to see them, and I think they were happy to see a familiar face.  But I also quickly realized that the English literacy level of the group was quite low–it was going to be a very different kind of class.

Two translators from USCRI came with the group:  yes that’s right, I said two.  One woman translated what I was saying into Burmese.  Another woman then translated the Burmese into the “old language.”  Well that’s what I was told; I’m assuming it is another less-common dialect.  One of the translators informed me that the group had been in the U.S. for three months or less, and all were currently living on public assistance.  I quickly shifted gears and brought the level of the material down to a level that, I felt, would be most useful for them.  For example, we talked about what a credit card is before we talked about the pitfalls of credit card debt.  We talked about how to best use a food stamp allowance.  We talked about the expenses they will be responsible for once they are working and earning a living, and the pitfalls that can take their finances in the wrong direction.

It actually was a great class.  I’m sure it was a lot of information for them to digest, but they might as well begin to learn about the dangers of credit cards and Rent-to-Own now, before they get the applications/flyers in the mail.

I plan on doing more workshops with this group and other groups USCRI sends my way.  Next time I’ll be more comfortable knowing what parts of the class I need to focus on and what parts may not be relevant.  Time is also a large consideration.  With two translators, it takes a while to get through the material.  And much more time needs to be allowed for the group to fill in the sign-in sheet (we ask for name, address, phone number, local power provider and county of residence) and a student profile to be filled out anonymously with income levels, age, and ethnicity questions.  Most of the students needed one-on-one help in filling out the forms.  But I actually think this is good for them.  The more times they see Name, Address, Phone Number on a form, the more times they’ll recognize what they need to write.

Again, I was teaching money management and they were learning that and a lot more.


October 3, 2007

Understanding Bilingualism

Posted in English as a second language, Literacy Needs, Second language learning at 8: 46 pm by MK

I just finished an interesting article, “Bilingual Minorities and Language Issues in Writing: Toward Professionwide Responses to a New Challenge,” by Guadalupe Valdes. In it, she seeks to define the bilingual individual and place an emphasis on the need for more research conducted specifically on second-language writing. She divides bilingual individuals into two categories: elective and circumstantial. Electives are those English speakers who have sought out foreign language classes such as Spanish or French, and have even gone to live or study abroad in another country. However, the intent of an elective is not to necessarily move to said country or fully adopt the foreign language. Most electives are middle class: learning another language is a luxury of sorts. Circumstantials, on the other hand, are forced to relocate to a new country and must learn the new language for survival. Yes, I’m kind of an elective (although I never became fluent, I did attempt to learn Spanish and study abroad) and A. & K. are circumstantials. Funny, when you compare myself to A. & K. it’s easy to see how drastically different electives and circumstantials can be.

When Valdes breaks down the circumstantials, she notes some interesting particulars. The child learner will enter a “functional” stage of learning after about two years of being in a new country. This means that he/she will be basically fluent and able to function in all aspects of life with needed written and oral language skills. Interestingly, when the child has reached this stage, he/she will begin to avoid using his/her native language. However, this native language will still be present in the way he/she both speaks and writes. Adult learners will most likely not enter the functional stage until they have been in the new country for 10 years. They will also remain native language preferrent.

Obviously the 2 and 10 year markers are averages. What can impact and change these estimates is the amount of time the second-language learner is surrounded by speakers of the new language. Z. & G. may learn much more quickly because they are in school five days a week surrounded by English speakers. A. has a good chance of lessening that 10 year marker because most likely he will soon get some form of employment and be exposed to English speakers on a daily basis. K., unfortunately, will probably take longer to hit the functional mark. Culturally, the expectation for her is to stay home and raise the children, especially with such young children. As the Burmese community is quite large in our area, she will most likely be surrounded by Burmese speakers on a daily basis. As my grandmother grew up being her mother’s Italian translator (my great grandmother never came close to hitting the functional stage), I can easily see Z. & G. assuming that role for ther parents.

Valdes argues that much of the research conducted on second-language learners has focused on oral learning, with the assumption that oral conclusions automatically apply to writing skills and learning. After living in Madrid for six months, I could speak Spanish well. However, my writing skills definitely did not match the oral. (I could only write in present tense!) And when we think of the composition classroom, it seems instructors need to be aware that simply because their bilingual student may speak clearly, they will still have special needs in terms of writing instruction.

For me, Valdes offers a clear analysis and understanding of the bilingual student. Obviously, each student is an individual and experiences can change dramatically but at least this is a place to start, to begin an understanding.

October 2, 2007

A good night

Posted in English as a second language, Literacy Needs, Second language learning, Teaching Tools at 8: 34 pm by MK

So much for the doom & gloom of my last post. Tonight’s visit, while not exactly soothing my guilty conscious, was really great. The kids are in school and are thriving. They have successfully (and quite confidently I must say) navigated the public transportation system and have settled into new lives as 6th & 7th graders. They could proudly and clearly tell me the name of both their school and their teacher. (Although the whole Mrs. vs. Mr. thing did need to get sorted out…)

We spent most of the evening looking through the papers in their backpacks. One of the first things I discovered was an emergency contact sheet that needed to be filled out for both children. I went over it with Z. & G. and had them each write in the necessary pieces (address, phone number, parents’ names, DOBs). It was good to hear them recite both their address and phone number. However, when G. went to write his parents’ names, he incorrectly spelled both of them. K. was right there watching over his shoulder and did not recognize the misspelling of her name in English. I helped to correct the names, and then reviewed with all of them how to spell their names. Is K. misspelling her name on anything she needs to sign or write in English?

I could not explain “date of birth,” so I ended up asking K. for her immigration papers. On the papers I found birth dates for all the family members and explained that this was the information that needed to be written on the sheets for the two children. Now maybe it’s just a wild coincidence, but Z. & G. both have the exact same birth date a year apart. Yes, they are one-year apart in age, but were they really born on the exact same day of the same month? This seems pretty unlikely. But if the date is incorrect on their immigration papers, what is the chance that it will be changed? And do they know what to change it to? Even though I think I correctly communicated what the date stands for, they all readily agreed that it was correct. Yeah, not sure what to do about this one . . .

A young man (Burmese speaking) from the apartment downstairs came up at some point to translate a few questions A. & K. had for me. The issue is that the children would like to eat lunch from the school but are unsure if it is halal. I expressed that the safest (and cheapest) bet would be for the kids to pack their lunches and bring them along. But then I realized they would definitely qualify for free school lunches. I brought this up to my translator (yes, he did speak English, but it was still rough) who responded that in order for the kids to get free school lunch the cost of the meals would be deducted from the families’ food stamp allotment. This doesn’t seem right to me. The family then told me this was a problem because they currently do not have food stamps left, and are waiting for the next installment. Worried, I asked repeatedly if they had enough food in the house to eat until they received the next installment of food stamps. They said yes. I’m not so sure they weren’t telling me what they knew I wanted to hear. However, when I left K. was cooking something that smelled fantastic, but just to be on the safe side I’m going to drop a note to their case worker tomorrow.

G. had homework to complete for tomorrow. He had to read out loud for 15 minutes and then record what he had read and how many pages. Well, by slowly sounding out letters and words we actually got through 2 pages of a children’s book– I was really proud of him! But again that guilt kicks in….who’s going to be there to help him tomorrow?

I looked through the ESL assignments they’d done in school so far and it made me feel really good. Most of the exercises were things that I actually had been doing with them, so it was a nice confirmation that I have been on the right track. And the best part is, the kids, and the family as a whole, seem to be on the right track.

September 20, 2007

Defining the basic writer

Posted in English as a second language at 10: 47 am by MK

I’ve been reading quite a bit about basic foundations of literacy.  Paul Kei Matsuda explores defining “basic writers” in his article, “Basic Writing and Second Language Writers:  Toward and Inclusive Definition.”   Currently a professor at Arizona State University, Matsuda is well-known and respected theorist in the field of Composition Theory.  His article made me think about the future Z. and G.—when they are leaving high school and hopefully furthering their education.  At that point, should they still be in an ESL classroom?  Or should they be in a basic writing classroom with American students? 


According to Matsuda, immigrant and refugee students who have been in the U.S. long enough to develop strong aural language skills but still struggle with the written language are in danger of falling through the cracks.  Matsuda cites William Slager (a former staff member of Michigan’s English Language Institute) as saying,

Even though they have serious problems in English as a foreign language, the immigrants do not profit from classes that are specifically devised for the newly arrived foreign students.  They need special work on grammar of usage.  But they often need no help at all in aural comprehension; and since they have lived for some time in this country, they need very little orientation. (Matsuda 70)

Historically, our higher education system did not have a place for these students.  Institutional change most noticeably began to happen when the open-admissions policy in many urban institutions changed in the 1970s.  This new policy allowed colleges to accept students who otherwise would have not been.  Matsuda discusses CUNY in particular as a good case study of the policy.  By 1980, 21.4% of new students and 18% of transfer students were born outside of the United States. (Matsuda 73)  CUNY attempted to distinguish between basic writers and ESL writers, but other colleges did not.  These other schools simply tracked ESL students into basic writing classes, ultimately ignoring the unique needs and circumstances of their ESL students. 


Matsuda argues that due to the make-up of the U.S., all writing teachers must be adept (on at least a basic level) at teaching ESL students.  ESL students will still continue to be tracked in basic writing classes.  It seems that in a perfect world students could be tracked in three ways:  basic writing, basic writing with an ESL focus, and ESL.  However, as schools (particularly smaller schools) struggle with funding and other obstacles, this ideal probably won’t happen.  Therefore, if writing teachers are aware of these differences, and trained to work with ESL students, perhaps some of the gaps will be filled.


I have been tutoring E., a woman who emigrated from Russia roughly six years ago.  Over the summer she took a basic writing course at Hudson Valley Community College.  We worked on her essays, which mostly required grammar changes, including word choices, sentence structure, and subject-verb agreement.  She spoke English well and had no difficulty understanding me.  However, her writing skills needed work.  Thinking back on that class, I wonder if her professor had ESL teaching experience.  I wonder if he knew about E.’s unique situation.  She is definitely a student that could easily slip through the cracks if a professor or a college is not aware of the extra help she needs. 


She seems to be the student Matsuda is talking about and, for me, puts his discussion in tangible terms. 

July 23, 2007

And then there were ten

Posted in English as a second language, Second language learning at 3: 03 pm by MK

When I showed up to teach A. & K. and their family Friday night, only the children and K. were home. However, shortly into the lesson A. came home. And then W. & B., the two Burmese men that live downstairs, showed up. Then five more guys trickled in; I hadn’t met them before but word must be out that there are free English lessons being offered. At one point I shifted my chair to enlarge the circle, looked around at the ten faces surrounding me and mildly panicked. Somehow lesson plan ideas for a family of five didn’t seem so transferable to a larger group. But in the end they were. . .

One that worked particularly well: I went around the circle and had each person say three descriptive things about the person sitting next to them. Some of the newcomers were more advanced and had an easier time. For the less advanced, there was a lot of prompting and Burmese translating, but it seemed to work well. Great practice of colors, and articles of clothing.

A. & K.’s case manager stopped by during the lesson. The church across the street has offered her free classroom space to teach English classes. She asked me if I wanted to teach some, and I said sure! If folks are going to be piling into the small apartment, it would be great to have space to work in and a blackboard to use. She also mentioned another English teacher that may be interested in helping–double plus as far as I’m concerned. It would be great to be able to work with someone that has experience I can learn from.

Oh, and E. stood me up. But she promises to meet me Wednesday night, so we’ll see.

July 17, 2007

Burmese snakes?

Posted in English as a second language, Second language learning at 7: 56 pm by MK

I swear I couldn’t make this stuff up if I wanted to.

Neighbors Scotty & Franky (and Scotty’s wife Priscella and five children) who live across the street from A. & K. have decided to befriend the family. I came up to the apartment today and outside Scotty had lawnchairs set up and a charcoal grill going with burgers and sausages. It was a whirlwind of kids, meat, and Juicy Juice. Scotty assured me that he’ll keep a close watch on the family. Why? Well, because he’s a good guy, his language is close to theirs with its vowel sounds (he speaks Spanish), and he raises Burmese snakes (says it will give him good insight into the culture). Plus gerbils, hamsters, bunnies….says it’s a regular zoo across the street. He offered to take me over; I politely declined. Okay, all joking aside I’m not sure what Scotty’s all about, but for now I’m going to put aside my impulse to doubt and hope that someone will really be looking out for their welfare. But oh Scotty, how do we explain the concept of halal?

When we finally made it upstairs the lesson went really well. Everyone is really eager to learn, and we had fun with the flashcards I had made. However, I completely underestimated the time I would need–we flew through the flashcards. So, I moved on to a vocabulary lesson of things around the apartment. When we got to silverware, the word “fork” left everyone laughing. Yes, with their accent it sounded like something that is definitely not fork. Of course that would be the one English word they know!

I left them later in the hands of Scotty, saying, “Hello, my name is K. How are you today?” Please let Scotty be a good guy.