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How I Became an ESOL Supporter

3 weeks 1 day 17 hours 7 min ago

Author: Kathy Stevens

One of my staff recently asked me about how I came to work at MCAEL.  She said, “You have a good story.”  Well, I don’t know if it is a good story, but I will say that as I reflect on the last eight years and certainly the last seven months, there are many daily reminders and stories that affirm how I came to be at MCAEL – and much of it boils down to the opportunity to work for an organization that is critical to the well-being of our community.  English language is a key for adults to reach their own goals, get jobs, take care of their own health, and support their children in school.

I love my job and I still don’t know exactly what I want to be when I grow up. I have had many jobs and job titles in my career. One thread that has been always be woven into my work has been a connection with education and community.  I’ve worked in the corporate, education and nonprofit worlds.  I am a recovering lawyer, fundraiser, community builder and I have a counseling degree.  I took the job (I was offered this job and one other in the same week – big decision !) because I thought the job would allow me to combine my interests, it was a new challenge,  – even though I was a little nervous that I was not an ESOL expert.

Not only have I used a broad skill set, but I have the opportunity to make sure that adults in our community can get quality English classes and that is beyond rewarding. The impact MCAEL makes with the organizations that teach English, the instructors who are in classrooms (or on ZOOM) every day, and most importantly the almost 17,000 adult learners we serve each year is necessary to the health, economic growth, and overall success of our community.

Instructor Spotlight: Elena Robles| International Rescue Committee (IRC) Beginner ESOL with Childcare

3 weeks 3 days 17 hours 7 min ago
Elena RoblesTell us a little bit about yourself and what has inspired you to be a teacher? 

I had a lot of experience in college having facilitated trainings through the Multicultural Education Department and my first year out of college I worked in advocacy helping to train constituents in effective lobbying. The classroom environment has felt like a very natural part of my professional experience and it’s a setting I really enjoy working in because of the power of dialogue and being in a setting where knowledge is so readily and willingly transferred. My first year working with the IRC was as a job-trainer conducting job readiness trainings, interview trainings, hospitality training and serving as a co-teacher for the women’s English program!  I love serving our clients and working with a team of interns and supervisors who share that same passion is what keeps me inspired!

What are the biggest challenges you face as an ESOL teacher? 

Our classes are only three weeks and we have women who have a variety of different literacy and educational backgrounds. The biggest challenge often feels like having the curriculum be as accessible as possible to all the women. I want to meet all the programmatic goals that we set together (teachers and students) and I also want to make sure that the material is digestible and meets the needs of each student. We have student clients who maybe it’s there first time getting to enter the classroom and others who may have once been the teachers in their home country. I’ve been very lucky to work  with a team of interns and my supervisor who are all ready and willing to help to adjust the curriculum, to look up resources through our MCAEL/IRC network, or spend additional time with the students one on one.

What has teaching remotely during a global pandemic taught you? 

The internet is a beautiful platform for connection and trust building. We had a very short period of time to turn our normal in-person classroom into a virtual platform. Thankfully, with some assistance and careful planning we were successful in training and testing for digital literacy and then continuing the classrooms online. Zoom has been most effective and I’m thankful that the IRC gets to continue to accompany our women during this time period. Our classroom space meant there was dialogue around what the women were facing, and in many ways we were able to again connect them with resources through this very hard time as they shared with us different home situations and how the pandemic was impacting them. 

What advice would you give to a new ESOL teacher or volunteer? 

Have fun! Be organized and plan ahead! If it is possible to have interns or assistants, get them! I love the classroom setting and I experience so much joy with our students! I love getting to see our interns also participate and learn from the experience!! Planning and organization definitely also helps with any jitters or stress! Have fun!

What have been your favorite pastimes during COVID-19? 

I love taking my dog for a long hike outside. It’s nice to breathe and just be present with the weather after spending hours of each day cooped up on a computer! 

What do you find most rewarding about your work?  

I love the folks I serve and the people I work with. Every day, I get to be supported by the most passionate, brilliant and talented coworkers. Even with the challenges of serving refugees during a pandemic and under a politically difficult environment, I still feel a deep sense of fulfillment and joy that I get to have the privilege of serving our clients. I am so lucky!
 

Digital Divide: Four Areas for Coordinated Action

1 month 3 days 18 hours 7 min ago

Author: Kathy Stevens 

I’ve been thinking about the digital divide a lot in recent months. You hear the phrase a lot, but what actually is it, what do our community members need, and is there coordinated effort to meet those needs. 

A useful framework that I am using addresses three areas of the digital divide that I see here in Montgomery County.  I believe there is much work to be done in all areas. The bottom-line goal for me, and the work of MCAEL is that we create a coordinated pathway to digital equity for all families. 

Three Digital Divides - Are all households able to optimize their online access? 

Reliable, Affordable Internet Access – This is the starting point. Ensuring that families have consistent and sustainable internet connections is key.  If a family does not have affordable access with quality service upon which they can rely, they have no access to school, work, support services and health care.   

Equipment to support all household members – Does a household have equipment (computer/ tablet) with which they can log on to online services in an optimal manner?  Many households share one computer or rely on smart phones. So, even if they have internet access in the home, one can’t optimize appointments or classes via a smart phone. 

Digital literacy skills – Assuming a household has access and equipment, the next question is whether one has the skills necessary to use the computer – to log on, to access a Zoom call, to research unemployment filing instructions, etc.  Training on these skills and then using them is imperative to optimize the use of online tools. 

These three areas are critical to a family’s success in using the virtual world for school, work, and other vital services.   

Additionally, it is imperative to consider two other areas: 1) Does a person have a private (or semi-private) space in which to have an online job interview or medical appointment?  2) How are we supporting nonprofits who are now providing their core services PLUS assistance to clients to acquire internet, computers and training them on the spot with digital skills.   

While many businesses, nonprofits, schools and service providers have moved to online platforms and have helped the individual clients they serve, I do not believe we have taken stock as a county in a coordinated manner  to assess whether families have what they need in the areas of internet access, equipment and digital skills training. Yes, we are doing great work as individual organizations, but I believe we can do better with increased conversation and coordination, and I look forward to working with other nonprofits, agencies and businesses in this regard.          

Feeling at Home

1 month 4 weeks 18 hours 7 min ago

 
Written by Stacey Fannon, ESL Program Director, Briggs Center for Faith and Action 

I remember seeing a picture from a potluck party last year that MCAEL hosted for Welcoming Week in 2019. All the participants were holding up signs which read “I’m a Welcomer.” This year I did not want to miss out on any of the fun even though there would be no potluck in 2020 and the events would all be virtual. 

I attended three events: “Building Community and Creating Home in the ESOL Classroom” a MCAEL discussion with learners, providers and instructors, “Creating a Warm and Welcoming Online Classroom” with network member English Now! and a Zoom Social with Kathy Stevens, Executive Director of MCAEL. 

At the event “Building Community and Creating Home in the ESOL Classroom” ESOL learners were asked how they felt going into the classroom for the first time and what instructors said or did to make them feel more comfortable. Learners recalled feeling fear and anxiety. One learner mentioned that she was ashamed of her English-speaking skills. All that changed when learners and instructors began to be vulnerable with each other. They were in class to support each other and to have fun together. Instructors tried to pronounce their learners’ names correctly. Learners tried to pronounce new vocabulary words correctly. Instructors and learners would both participate in icebreakers. If a learner did not understand something in English, their classmate who spoke the same native language would help translate. Eventually, the classroom started to feel like home. Recipes were shared. Stories were told. Games were played. Laughs were laughed. 

At the event “Creating a Warm and Welcoming Online Classroom” facilitated by Jennifer Kagan, Director of Program Development at English Now!, participants identified the following words associated with “home”: comfortable, safe, non-judgmental and honest. Although everything has gone virtual, there are still opportunities to create human connection. It was pointed out that ESOL instructors can create comfortable, safe and honest classrooms by doing some of the same activities online as in-person. For example, instructors can still use icebreakers like “2 truths and a lie,” interviewing each other and have a “Show and Tell” online. We also discussed how story sharing, teaching each other, calling each other by name, playing games, listening to music, sharing recipes, watching funny videos, celebrating holidays, carving pumpkins, and laughing together can create home in the classroom

I wrapped up the week with a Zoom Social hosted by Kathy Stevens from MCAEL. We listened to music together, looked at photos celebrating the week, talked about some of the highlights from the events. We all still need human connection, even if we can only do it online now. I certainly have learned ways to make my students feel at home in the ESOL classroom. You can still create home if you make the effort – even online!

 

Instructor Spotlight: Linda Kuserk |Mill Creek Parish United Methodist Church

1 month 4 weeks 18 hours 7 min ago

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what has inspired you to be a teacher?

I am a physical therapist living in Derwood Maryland and attending Mill Creek Parish, which started an ESOL program last year.  As a physical therapist, I enjoy educating students and patients and thought these skills might carry over to teaching ESOL. I was hoping my volunteering in the program would help to serve a need in our community.

What are the biggest challenges you face as an ESOL teacher?

One of the challenges I face as a teacher is only knowing one language.  Although you do not need to be bilingual, and are to only speak in English, it would be easier if I could understand the questions from students in their native language. We eventually figure it out, though.

What has teaching remotely during a global pandemic taught you?

Teaching remotely has forced me to find and use more virtual resources that can be shared through the computer screen.  It has also shown me how, for students with very little or no English skills, virtual instruction may be more challenging. It limits a teacher’s ability to communicate non-verbally as well as your ability to see a student’s non-verbal communication and to look over their shoulder to see how they are comprehending an assignment.

What advice would you give to a new ESOL teacher or volunteer?

I am still a relatively new teacher myself.  My advice would be to relax and go with the flow of the class.  Things do not always go as planned but usually work out in the end. 

What has been your favorite pastimes during COVID-19?

My favorite past-time during COVID-19 has been walking outside for exercise.  After a day at work under PPE, I am longing to be out in the fresh air.

What do you find most rewarding about your work?

I find the relationships with students most rewarding.  I am always amazed at a student’s story and their journey to this country.  

What is something you learned about your students during this remote teaching period?

When COVID first began, we continued our classes informally over zoom.  Our numbers decreased compared to the in-person classes.  Those students who were most committed continued to attend the zoom sessions.  Those student who are familiar with technology and had some English proficiency found zoom easier than those who little to no English skills.

Instructor Spotlight: Jim Hand |Covenant Life Church

2 months 3 weeks 18 hours 7 min ago

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what has inspired you to be a teacher?

I am a retired middle school teacher, and my wife also has had teaching experience.  What inspired us to become ESOL teachers is that we both love helping people, especially people who are facing challenges, so the prospect of teaching ESOL was very attractive to us. My wife and I are also learning Spanish, daily using Duolingo. This has helped us understand the challenges our students face in trying to learn English.
 
What are the biggest challenges you face as an ESOL teacher?

Having primarily been a middle school math teacher, one of the challenges I face is how to teach English effectively, and to adults.  In the beginning, I felt like a first-year teacher, trying different ways of teaching English, and also trying to make if fun and interesting.  Now, after 4 years of experience, I feel like I am getting better at creating lessons that will help the students learn English better. An ongoing challenge I face is trying to create a class where students feel free to participate and are not afraid to make mistakes. 
 
What has teaching remotely during a global pandemic taught you?

A few months ago, I hadn’t even heard of Zoom. Now I have a pretty good handle on how to use it in order to teach remotely. Although not the same as in person instruction, I feel that our students have been able to learn a lot during the time that we have had with them while using Zoom. I have learned that there are a lot of tutorials regarding Zoom, and I am constantly trying to learn more about teaching remotely.

What advice would you give to a new ESOL teacher or volunteer?

The advice I would give is to just jump right in and get involved. The technology can be challenging, but there are plenty of ways you can get help or ideas. (MCAEL ; youTube videos; etc.)  Also, know that anything that you teach your students is a “plus”, and is going to help them learn English better. And perhaps most importantly, know that your relationship with them is priceless.

What has been your favorite pastimes during COVID-19?

Although I have enjoyed the “slower and more peaceful pace” that COVID-19 has caused on my life, I have missed relating in person to my children and grandchildren, my neighbors, and my friends from church. However, frequent zoom meetings have helped me to stay connected with these people.  I really enjoyed our vacation time in August, kayaking with my wife, and spending “in person time” with my children and grandchildren as some of the restrictions have eased.  
 
What do you find most rewarding about your work?

I think that the most rewarding part about my work is the knowledge that what I (we) do is impacting a person’s life.  I really value the relationships that we have made during our teaching of ESOL. I feel like we are entering the lives of our students, and that they know we really care about them as people, not just as students. 
 
What is something that you learned about your students during this remote teaching period?

One thing I have learned while teaching during this period is that my students have faced, and are currently facing, some real challenges. Things such as the health of relatives, finding work, and caring for young children, to name just a few.  Our team has tried to be supportive through the building of relationships, through prayer, and certainly by trying to effectively teach English.

What our partners are doing now...

8 months 2 days 18 hours 7 min ago

We recently hosted a Zoom discussion to discuss how county ESOL programs are responding to COVID 19. This meeting was coordinated to gather information on how coalition members are pivoting their processes to continue serving learners and to identify how MCAEL can best support programs as instruction goes online. 

We had some great suggestions and discussion. Many providers are formulating plans and some have transitioned to online teaching. The tools being used vary, for example, the Literacy Council of Montgomery County and the Ethiopian Community Center are using Google Hangouts while the Chinese Culture and Community Service Center and Montgomery College are using Zoom. Here is some of what our partners shared with us:

Ahu Moser, Director, Academic Programming | Literacy Council of Montgomery County

We currently have all our classes online; between March 16th and March 20th, we did some video recordings. We are using Google Hangouts and we provided both our teachers and students training in how to use Google Hangout. This has been a learning process as our teachers are trying to figure out how to make this online learning more practical, learning new tricks and tips. We are very excited about this and we are all learning as we go through this, but I am happy with our progress.

Roza Beyene, Program Manager | Ethiopian Community Center

We have been having a little bit of tough time since there were no classes and we couldn’t figure out how long these classes would be suspended. But now we have restarted calling our students to see if they would interested in having our classes continued online and most of our students are willing to participate the online class and we choose Google Hangouts for our needs by discussing with the teachers as well as with some of the students who are tech savvy. The challenge that I feel we might face is not every student is tech savvy and not all of them have smart phones so that is going to be our challenge. We have been calling and checking on our students so far and everyone is doing well except for the stress of staying home and not working or going to class so hopeful this will lift their spirit.

Chiao-chiao Liu, Education Director| Chinese Culture and Community Service Center

The last two weeks we have been contacting the students and we found out that the students want to continue learning. I got in touch with my instructors and provided them with some Zoom training to teacher. We are using Zoom for the first time, so this has been a learning experience for me too. We are almost ready and will resume our classes on April 1st. Our classes will be held five days a week; multilevel classes each day. Students who were not able to join us before will be able to join us now since this is online; we are expecting more participants to join then before. We are still learning but everyone is excited.

Emma Wilson,  Adult ESOL & Literacy Program Manager | Montgomery College

ESOL program is continuing instruction; we received support from MC to provide an online platform for our teachers, we are using Zoom. We did our training during spring break and classes resumed online. We are seeing good attendance and seeing different needs from students such as the need for healthcare, childcare, employment, mental health, etc. We are trying to tap into our networks to support our students. It has been a bitter learning experience for the teachers; it has been challenging; we are addressing technical challenges and planning for additional training, but I think that we are at least continuing to engage students and the students are responding well. 

We are thankful for the resilience of our partners and are ready to help where we can to support their work during this critical time.

Professional Development Conference 2020 Keynote Speaker: Crystal Townsend, President & CEO, Healthcare Initiative Foundation

10 months 1 week 3 days 17 hours ago

Townsend is the President & CEO of the Healthcare Initiative Foundation which supports organizations that offer solutions to improve the capacity, availability and the delivery of quality health and wellness services for Montgomery County residents. The Foundation has distributed over $84 million since inception particularly focused on the most vulnerable in our community. Townsend currently serves on the Leadership Montgomery Board, Montgomery Women, Montgomery Moving Forward Leadership Team, Children’s Opportunity Fund Leadership Team, Regional Primary Coalition Management Team, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers Board, and the BlackRock Center for the Arts. Prior board service includes, Nonprofit Montgomery FIRM Advisory Committee, United Way of NCA, Suburban Hospital Community Benefit Advisory Board, County Executive Marc Elrich Transition Team, Committee for Montgomery Board, Friends of Wells Robertson House, Inc., BlackRock Center for the Arts Gala Committee, and Montgomery County Social Services Board.

Preceding her work with the Foundation, Townsend was the City of Gaithersburg's Community Services Director overseeing and coordinating health and human services for City residents. Prior to her service with the city, she served as the Family Support Services Administrator for Family Services, Inc. managing early intervention and home visiting programs. Earlier in her career, she was the Healthy Families Frederick Program Manager, Legislative Director for the U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania, and the Domestic Violence Shelter Manager for Heartly House. Townsend attained her Bachelor of Arts from Hood College in Law and Society and holds a Master of Public Administration from Rutgers University from the International Public Service and Development Program. 

 

Organization Spotlight: Neelsville Presbyterian Church

11 months 3 weeks 4 days 17 hours ago

Can you describe your ESOL program and how your program came to be?

This program is offered as a ministry of Neelsville Presbyterian Church in Germantown. We have a small program on Saturday mornings, with between 50 and 70 students. The classes are two hours long, plus  we have a mixed-level walk-in conversation hour most Saturdays after classes. The class year is from September through May with a break during the holidays. We have multiple beginner level classes, as the greatest percentage of students that come are at the beginner level. Presently, we have three beginner classes, 1 level two, 1 level three, and a conversation class for those primarily needing conversation. In addition, all of our teachers and the director are volunteers. The classes are offered free of charge, including the books. Our program is advertised, both through the MCAEL provider list/brochure and by our sign placed on the side of the road in front of the church one week before classes begin in September. We offer a rolling registration as long as there is room for new students. We are commanded in the scriptures to be a blessing to others in Jesus’ name. The program came to exist in the early 2000s through a vision of a few members of the church, with Betty Velthuis as the director, who had a burden to help the growing immigrant community around the church. To date, the program has helped more than 500 of our immigrant neighbors.
 
What are the demographics of your learners? For example, country of origin, male/female, occupation?
 
Our demographics are truly a reflection of the immigrant community in the Germantown area and the immediate needs of the community. The make-up of our student population is very fluid and changes from year-to-year. Usually, about half of our students are from Latin America, with the rest being from many different countries. We have had students from Iran, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, China, Japan, Ukraine, Portugal, Vietnam, Madagascar, to name a few. We have both male and female students, although we tend to have more females. Most of our learners are working in labor and entry-level positions, mostly due to their need for English; however, we sometimes have professionals as well.

For readers who may not be familiar with your ESOL program, what are some things you would like them to know about your program? 

Our program is a program for the immigrant population who cannot afford to attend more formal/collegiate programs, such as that at Montgomery College. Our goal is to make English learning available to all free of charge. Our registration is not restrictive. This means we are open to all and as long as we have room in our classes, we continue to accept walk-ins that were not aware of our program during the main registration period. Also, as we are on a main bus line, our facilities are easily accessible by bus for those without private transportation.

Can you share a recent success story? 

We have many success stories. Some of our students practiced a profession in their home countries but cannot get jobs because of their limited English language ability. After they attend our program and improve their language proficiency, they are able to gain employment in their field. One good example is Eva. She was a nurse in her home country. After being with us for 1 year, she was able to get a job as a nurse. Mohammad was able to begin his own contractor business. It is very rewarding to hear these stories. Edgar is a University professor and needed to improve his English.

Steve Amar is the director of the Neelsville Presbyterian Church English program. He has a master’s degree in Teaching English as a Foreign Language/Intercultural Studies through Columbia International University. He has been with the program since 2011, and began directing the program in 2017. His forte is teaching Beginning English. He is a pastor in the Persian community in Montgomery County.

Interview by Halima Ahmed

Community Member Highlight - Laura Cerezo Varga, Mother of the Junior Mayor of Gaithersburg

1 year 1 week 17 hours 7 min ago

Cerezo FamilyIn September MCAEL attended the Gaithersburg Principals Appreciation Breakfast. While attending I was impressed with the principals, the Gaithersburg City staff and with Diego Flores-Cerezo, the Junior Mayor of Gaithersburg. I had the pleasure of sitting at a table with his father who looked on in pride as his son delivered welcoming remarks. I wanted to learn more about Diego's family and they agreed to share some of their story in the context of ESOL with MCAEL. Here is Laura Cerezo Vargas, Diego's mom sharing her story with us:

I am from Mexico from the state of Puebla. Since arriving in the United States, I have lived in Gaithersburg for more than 12 years. In my country I studied a little bit of English, but I never practiced it. When I arrived here, I found myself in need and understood that I had to learn to be able to communicate anywhere. 

I have taken ESOL classes in different schools, Gaithersburg High School, Montgomery Village Middle School, Gaithersburg Middle School and lastly an adult ESOL course at Montgomery College. I took English classes to validate the studies that I have in my country. In Mexico I studied nursing. I then took English classes to be able to communicate and help my children with their education, and now I continue taking classes to improve my work. I work as a Teacher Assistant in a Private Preschool. I have two children, one of four and Diego, who is 10 years old next month. Diego has found it a bit difficult to learn Spanish and the little one is excited to learn Spanish. I feel proud of where I am from, one of the ways I keep my culture alive is by celebrating Mexican holidays, for example a traditional celebration for us is the Day of the Dead honoring the memory of our ancestors. 

It has given us great pride and joy that our son has been serving as the Junior Mayor of the beautiful city of Gaithersburg. And it is a great experience as a family to share this with the Mayor and the members of the City Council of Gaithersburg. To other immigrant families I would say it’s important to talk about the experience we have had as parents, we are very supportive of our children. We believe that the fundamental thing is to keep the family together. 

During the time that I have lived in this country I have learned that it is essential to learn English. As immigrants, we are afraid of talking fearing that people will laugh at the way we talk. However, we must be willing to practice and not give up on learning another language.

Interview by Monica Casañas

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