ELLs Meeting Neighbors in the Community

Sometimes working with adult ELLs for as long as I have, certain things just become routine. Good teaching strategies that seem to work universally are hard to stray from. So, like many teachers, I hold on dearly to particular lessons and activities and practice them with just about every group of students I teach. Once in a while, situations present themselves that are unique. We try to recreate them with other students at other schools or at other times, but special moments are just that –special.

I would like to share with you one of those moments. It’s the sort of “lesson” that should be practiced more, but circumstances have to present themselves and the stars have to align just right. Like, for example, having students make connections with members of their immediate community. Not some staged set of do-gooders who mean well by speaking with ELLs, but real, authentic members of the surrounding community genuinely coming to visit your class to intermingle with the students. This, as you can imagine, takes some careful planning and cooperation. But I was fortunate enough to pull something like this off. How? Using a fail-safe motivator: FREE FOOD.

Luckily for me, I work with the best ESL coordinators in the world. The idea floated around about inviting neighbors in the community surrounding the elementary school where free English classes were being taught in the evening. I coordinated with another ESL instructor and the program director to give flyers and make announcements inviting the families of the children who attended the school, as well as the general neighbors nearby. It was labeled a multi-cultural “Meeting Your Neighbors” event. There would be music and free ethnic food (mostly Mexican, Salvadorean, and Honduran). And though many were lured by the smell of good food and the sound of rhythmic music, no one really knew what to expect. But to my surprise, everyone made a new friend that evening.

I had students and our neighbors/guests sit in on two lines of chairs facing each other. On one side sat the students; on the other the “guests.” They were supposed to introduce themselves and talk about specific things. The students and guests would engage each other in a short conversation, and this would go on for about a minute. Then, a timer would go off and everyone had to move one chair to the right and repeat this. I admit before starting, I was nervous this would turn out to be a disaster. But it didn’t. Everyone had several very good, one-minute conversations. There was a lot of chatter and laughter. My heart filled with happiness, as did everyone else in the room. A special moment, like I said.

Below is a short video from that evening. It was completely impromptu, so forgive the shakiness and sidebar discussion. You can see and maybe make out bits of some of the conversations going on. Maybe they all were really interested. Maybe they were working up an appetite for the food. Whatever the case, I’m hoping I get to have more of these types of special activities.

TESOL 2016: Network King

From left to right: Jose V. Torres (IWTLE), Valentina Holubeva (English Speaking Club), and Alla Schlate (Sacred HEart University)
From left to right: Jose V. Torres (IWTLE), Valentina Holubeva (English Speaking Club), and Alla Schlate (Sacred Heart University)

The 2016 TESOL Convention was on my home turf and it was a big occasion. It was the 50 year anniversary, my first textbook was published just a month before, and I was representing the AFT and Baltimore City Community College. Having colleagues, former professors, and new connections all under the same roof magnified the anticipation. The adrenaline was pumping on turbo.

The timing of TESOL 2016 was impeccable, and I made sure to be there every day from the moment the doors opened on Monday morning until everyone scurried out at the last minute on Friday evening. It wasn’t necessary; it was crucial. I attended every session I could and networked with hundreds of people from all over the world. And why was I so immersed in TESOL 2016? Because everything is different now. The narrative on immigration and public funding for programs in general has shifted, and not just in the United States. The stakes seem to be getting higher simultaneously as our profession is making leaps in overall efficiency and the TESOL organization itself grows in size and importance. I roamed the halls and lobbies at the convention center for a one simple reason: networking. Some of it was to promote my textbook; some just to gain another nugget of knowledge to use in my quest to find “keys” that will contribute to unlocking some of the mysteries of adult language acquisition. And with every day there, I refined my ability to hone in on people who could be great contacts. I arrived as the sun was coming out and wouldn’t leave until the dark of night had fallen. As the final moments of the convention frittered, I was spent. My leaden body and feet slowed my pace as I left, but my mind remained ravenous.