In the middle of class one day, one of the English classroom volunteers spontaneously said, “I want to know what the students’ favorite and least favorite things about America are.” So I told her to pose the question to the class for a discussion. The answers were insightful. Most students spoke about how they love freedom in the U.S. and how they feel their families are safe here. Some mentioned their concerns about homelessness, drugs, and alcoholism, which they didn’t expect to find in the United States. One very sweet, shy student became animated as she explained her favorite thing: squirrels!
The response that impacted me the most came from one of older women in the class. Her English skills were very limited, and I remember that health concerns caused her to miss class at least half of the time. She avoided speaking in class as much as she could, but when the volunteer posed this particular question, her eyes lit up. She eagerly offered a full sentence: “I like reading.”
During the hustle and bustle of managing the activity, I initially thought, “Oh that’s wonderful – she likes reading English! It’s even her favorite thing about being here.” But, as I thought about her response later in the day, I recalled that she never learned to read or write in her first language, Nepali. This class at World Relief was her first experience with literacy at all. Additionally, out of all of the things she could have been grateful for as a recently arrived refugee, she immediately identified her new-found ability to read and write as most important. Her confidence in these skills empowered her to share her voice in a situation where she would normally be silent, and I think that that is so very cool.
English language learning is a significant challenge for many refugees arriving in the United States. Though most have some past experience with English – however little (“hello”, “thank you”, “no problem” etc.) – students’ levels of skill vary dramatically from those who are non-literate to those who used to work as interpreters or translators. As an instructor, I admit I found this multi-level nature of the classroom at times quite frustrating, but it also turned out to be an opportunity for getting students to interact with each other and with volunteers. In fact, volunteers played a vital role day-to-day by focusing with smaller groups of students on activities and, often, by simply time giving them time to practice spoken English skills in a very low-pressure environment. Students would regularly ask after their favorite volunteers on days when they weren’t around and vice versa!
I’m grateful for the volunteer’s question that day and how it made me think twice about what a student really meant.
This story was written by Caitlin Wasley, one of our former ESL Instructors through the Americorps Literacy Program (RIP). Caitlin recently graduated from the University of Washington with an MA in Comparative Religion. She is an avid Molly Moon’s fan, and enjoys spotting Corgis in her spare time. World Relief misses you, Caitlin!