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Reflections from the 2021 WATESOL Conference: ESOL, Race & Equity

2 weeks 4 days 21 hours 49 min ago

On October 16th I attended the Washington Area TESOL (WATESOL) virtual conference. I mapped out my workshop schedule eager to learn more about asset- based instruction and how to support learners who struggle with unseen learning difficulties. I found these workshops to be hugely informative, but it was the keynote address from Suhanthie Motha that has lingered with me every single day since.

Her presentation “Is antiracist English language teaching possible? Striving for racial justice in TESOL” challenged us as English language teaching professionals to look at our work in a larger social and historical context. There is an inherent complexity to teaching English that many of us may not have considered in our day-to-day lives as adult ESOL professionals. Historically to the present, the English language has been used as a tool for colonialism, oppression, racism and enforcing a culture of white supremacy. Conversely, most of us enter the field of ESOL with the intention to teach English as a tool for helping learners improve their lives through gaining the language skills needed to engage and thrive in their lives and community.

Motha’s keynote encouraged us to ask our field and ourselves difficult questions like, “How do I hold knowledge of oppression with the intention of supporting learners?”  Difficult questions like this one call us to not only critically examine our field but also dig deep into our own selves to recognize that none of us are neutral in the way we see race. I left Dr. Motha’s keynote with an ache in my heart that reminded me that there is much work to be done to bring more racial equity to our field.

We at MCAEL are committed to evolving in our knowledge, practices and supports around racial equity as a community. Recognizing the work starts inside we’re committed to doing our work in house, as well as, in the broader MCAEL network. Motha’s call has sparked our staff and members of our Executive Board to form a book club. We will be reading her book Race, Empire and English Language Teaching: Creating Responsible and Ethical Anti-Racist Practice and exploring how it applies to the work we are doing here in the Montgomery County adult ESOL community. Creating a racially equitable community starts with digging deep inside of ourselves, but we don’t have to do it alone. When we work towards racial equity in compassionate community the lift becomes more doable for each of us.

Tiffani Ross
Manager of Network Learning and Development
 

Instructor Spotlight: Melissa McDonald| Seneca Creek Community Church ESOL Program

4 weeks 1 day 22 hours 49 min ago

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what has inspired you to be a teacher?
I am the proud mom of four young adult children (19-27) and am grateful to have two talkative cats and two adorable little dogs to keep me company now that my kids have soared from the nest.  I am an elementary school library media specialist in Montgomery County Public schools. I am a lifelong learner and I believe that the library is a place for readers to imagine, explore, create, and soar! I serve at my church in various areas, which is very important to me.  I also serve on the planning committee of the Gaithersburg Book Festival, and on the Board of Trustees for the Friends of the Library, Montgomery County.  I believe it is extremely important to serve my community, and to give of my time and talents to others. I love helping others, and teaching English to my adult learners is so very rewarding.

What are the biggest challenges you face as an ESOL teacher?
I teach at my church’s ESOL program at Seneca Creek Community Church.  We believe that the work we do with learners is a ministry to our community. The biggest challenge I face as an ESOL teacher is that I cannot do more for my adult learners. Currently, I teach Intermediate II, so my learners have a good understanding of the English language, but they sometimes get discouraged. They are so supportive of each other and encourage each other when they stumble. I remind my adult learners that English is a difficult language to learn and most of them are not immersed in it on a daily basis.  I remind them to not give up, even if, and when, things are challenging.  Effort, motivation, and persistence are so important for achieving their goals.  I am very proud of the time that my adult learners put into their own education, and I hope that I am helping them achieve their goals.

What has teaching remotely during a global pandemic taught you?
I am an MCPS elementary school librarian, and a saying we have in our school library media program is to be “brave before perfect", which also applies to teaching remotely. At the beginning, when our ESOL program first switched to remote learning, things weren't perfect, but we had a dedicated team of volunteers at Seneca Creek Community Church willing to step out in faith. The pandemic taught me that thinking outside the box was not only important, but essential, and  that my adult learners were up to the challenge.   Offering our classes virtually has helped some of my learners attend when they wouldn’t have been able to in person.  For example, if their child was sick, or if they were out of town, they could still attend class. I have one learner who attended class while she made her deliveries for work, and others as they traveled with their family.  I even taught my class one Saturday morning from my hotel room when I was out-of-town.

What advice would you give to a new ESOL teacher or volunteer?
My advice is to be open and welcoming and to build relationships with your learners. Provide lots of opportunities for your learners to speak with each other.  I start each class with a fun discussion question and encourage each of them to answer and respond to each other in a casual, conversational way.  For example, I might ask, “What is your favorite season, and why?” Or “Would you rather play basketball or soccer, and why?” It helps them find commonalities with each other (and me), and often brings on joyful laughter as we share our stories.  In my experience, adult learners appreciate everything you do, and don’t expect you to be perfect. We learn best from our mistakes. I often use my imperfections as a learning tool - I have been speaking and writing in English for 55 years, and I don’t always get it right!

What have been your favorite pastimes during COVID-19?
I love to read and write.  I read a lot of children’s books for my job, but I also love to read them - especially picture books.  I also enjoy reading historical fiction, mysteries, and romance novels. I write poetry and I have been writing children’s stories that I hope will get published some day!  I walk a lot with my dogs, and really enjoy getting out in nature.  Light hiking around the lake at Seneca Creek State Park or a bit more advanced hiking at Sugarloaf Mountain is so invigorating, and good for my soul.  I also started indoor rock climbing with two of my kids. They are so encouraging, and it really empowers me when I can reach the top of a 40-50 foot wall!

What do you find most rewarding about your work?
The most rewarding part of teaching is when I see a learner’s proud smile when they succeed in mastering a tricky pronunciation or grammatical rule. I also love to see my learners help each other, and to listen as they share in their successes when they have been able to accomplish something because their English has improved.

What is something you learned about your students during this remote teaching period?
I have learned that my adult learners have overcome many challenges and are determined to continue improving their lives for themselves and their families. We pray for each other during challenges and are encouraging of each other’s successes. We have a WhatsApp group so that we can reach each other throughout the week. I tell them often that they are my heroes.

Instructor Spotlight: Megan Dry | Sheppard Pratt (Family Discover Center & Thriving Germantown)

1 month 2 weeks 5 days 22 hours ago


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

I am the adult education instructor at Family Discovery Center in Rockville. I've been teaching ESOL to adults in the DC area for over seven years. I received my bachelor's degree from the Ohio State University - Go Buckeyes! Looking back on my own educational experience, there are only a handful of teachers that had a big impact of me as a student. Passionate and inspiring teachers can make or break a student's classroom experience, and I wanted to be that teacher that inspired students to continue learning and improving their skills. 

What are the biggest challenges you face as an ESOL teacher?
One of the biggest challenges of being an adult ESOL instructor is the many different backgrounds and education levels that the students bring to the class. Trying to pick a chapter book that is suitable for all students in the class can be quite a challenge! 

What has teaching remotely during a global pandemic taught you?
Teaching remotely during a global pandemic has reminded me of the importance of simple face to face interactions and the impact they have with building relationships with students. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we mostly have been virtual, but our students would stop by the center to pick up food, books, activity kits for their children, and other materials. We only saw the students for a few minutes, but those interactions allowed for us to get to know each other more and develop a better relationship beyond the computer screen. 

What advice would you give to a new ESOL teacher or volunteer?
Expect the unexpected and have several simple activities available if needed. And just have fun! Play games, be silly, and laugh in class, and encourage students to do the same. I often feel like class can be a big game of Charades for me! 

What have been your favorite pastimes during COVID-19?
I started a garden about three years ago and it has grown larger each year. During the COVID-19 pandemic, gardening each night was a big stress reliever for me after working on the computer all day. 

What do you find most rewarding about your work?
I love seeing the growth students make in their personal lives, whether it's getting a driver's license or a new job, and how their growth has a positive impact on their family and community. Many of our students come from a culture that are very different, and seeing students become more adaptable and comfortable to living here in the U.S. is a great thing to see!  

What is something you learned about your students during this remote teaching period?
Our program works with ESOL students who have a child under the age of four. Several of our students have a newborn baby at home! I am so proud of our students and their dedication to the class. It's not easy to attend a class virtually while having young children at home, plus having school-aged children attend school from home too! 

Instructor Spotlight: Luis Falquez|Identity, Inc

3 months 2 days 22 hours 49 min ago

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what has inspired you to be a teacher?
I am an ESL teacher at Identity Inc., Gaithersburg, MD. I am always learning how to teach successfully to young or adult Latinos people English as a second language to have more opportunities here in the United States of America.   

What are the biggest challenges you face as an ESOL teacher?
The biggest challenge has been to set an engagement of all my students, with different occupations, different life routine schedules, different learning styles, and different English levels. But the pathway has been incredibly fantastic while I am watching the progress of my students.

What has teaching remotely during a global pandemic taught you?
Conveying motivation, persistence, and keeping creativity to always bring the best ESL resources to continue having the best English Language Learning process acquisition.

What advice would you give to a new ESOL teacher or volunteer?
Always being prepared with different English Language Learning Resources to make more fun the acquisition of English as a second language, and in that way to make the proper differentiation of the students according to their interests and likes.

What have been your favorite pastimes during COVID-19?
I love reading about remote jobs, and remote learning, because even if We like it or not is now part of our present, and definitely part of our future. 

What do you find most rewarding about your work?
The most rewarding thing about my job is to see hope in my student's lives. See how they continue practicing and coming to the virtual classes, no matter the situations that they can be facing personally or in other areas. 

What is something you learned about your students during this remote teaching period?
I have learned their determination to conquer and achieve their goals without limits, I have learned how to be a hero like them, and that is what they are: [HEROES]. Because only heroes can continue reaching goals and success with the wind against them.
 

CLG a MCAEL Bridge

5 months 5 days 22 hours 49 min ago

MCAEL is working with local organizations to create Community Learning Groups (CLGs), learning spaces that connect learners and community members to ESOL (sometimes for the first time) in their communities. An important part of MCAEL’s Racial Equity Strategic Plan, the CLG program focuses on two objectives: 1) helping more adults in East County and other areas with fewer English classes to find a pathway to improving their English skills, and 2) increasing the number and diversity of trained adult ESOL instructors.  

The 9-week CLG ESOL class model builds on existing social ties, working with key community leaders to introduce ESOL to learners through a trusted point of contact. Participants meet at a convenient place (or online) and time that best suits the group. At the end of the introductory class, each participant goes through a “case-management” process and are referred to existing community-based classes where they can continue their learning, based on their individual needs and circumstances. 

In the past 5 months, MCAEL has piloted two CLG classes, partnering with Identity, Inc. (10-week class, ran February – March) and Kings and Priests Court International Ministries – City of Light Helping Hands (9-week class, ran April – June). Lessons learned from these two pilots about the curriculum, pace and length of class are invaluable, and have been incorporated into plans for the next CLG classes to start in July. In post-class surveys, participants reported an increase in confidence using English, and the majority have enrolled in another class to continue their study.  

In May 2021, with the help of East County-based organizations, MCAEL recruited and selected individuals from local immigrant communities to train as CLG instructors. Topics in the custom 4-week (16-hour) training program offered in May/June included: adult learning theory and principles; learner-centered teaching techniques; and online learning/teaching. Six participants successfully completed the course and will teach CLG classes to take place this summer; MCAEL will provide them with information on further TESOL training and career advice. Congratulations to Abebech Tebeje, Abiodun Olatunji, Clara Ekeke, Jocelyn Matenje, Mariame Koita, and Soffie Ceesay!

The CLG’s are a bridge to the ESOL network in Montgomery County that help expand access for learners where programming is not readily available and training for community members to teach adult ESOL, especially those that are representative of their communities. These groups will break barriers to learning by warmly handing-off new learners to local organizations, while opening new opportunities for community involvement.

Instructor Spotlight: Austin Lee|Washington New Covenant Fellowship Church

7 months 1 week 1 day 22 hours ago

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what has inspired you to be a teacher?
I am a volunteer ESL teacher through New Covenant Fellowship Church in Germantown, MD.  Growing up, I enjoyed learning different languages in school and at home.  I found that languages are invaluable tools to draw experiences, opportunities, history, and thought from the wells of country, culture, and people.  As such, I was inspired to help students learn English so that they too can use language to understand others and express themselves.

What are the biggest challenges you face as an ESOL teacher?
The biggest challenge has been remote learning during the pandemic. Attendance gets spotty, and technological literacy tends to be another barrier at the lower levels, adding a layer of difficulty for pacing and collaboration.

What has teaching remotely during a global pandemic taught you?
Teaching through a global pandemic has taught me how to tailor ESL classes to a virtual classroom. This includes making use of Zoom's many features for online learning, as well as how to use technology to augment learning as opposed to letting technological complexity diminish English language content.

What advice would you give to a new ESOL teacher or volunteer?
I found that the more relationships a student builds in class, the more consistently they come out.  Rather than a hub and spoke relationship model between teacher and student, it's beneficial to foster environments where students get to know other students beyond names. Setting aside some class time for casual conversations also helps build real-world English speaking skills as well as stronger class bonds. Above all, pray for the students.

What have been your favorite pastimes during COVID-19?
I enjoy reading, playing the piano, and playing the occasional video game. I also enjoy solving online cybersecurity challenges (I work full-time as a Cybersecurity Engineer). 

What do you find most rewarding about your work?
The most rewarding things are the relationships forged with and between the students. I enjoy learning about the different cultures and countries of the students.  It is also rewarding when the student’s express satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment regarding their improvement in English. Before COVID, the church would hold potlucks for the ESL program, and I was able to enjoy one of the greatest aspects of a given culture: food. I hope to enjoy this once again when things return to normalcy, as it too was quite rewarding. 

What is something you learned about your students during this remote teaching period?
I learned that 3 of my students have 4 children!  I learned that some students in construction worked on buildings and infrastructure that I've passed by while driving around the county.  I learned that one likes to dance, another started a cooking channel on YouTube, and another is trying to get their dog to be a social media influencer.  While I also learned about some unfortunate circumstances, it's been a joy learning about each other's lives.

Instructor Spotlight: Jill Smudski |Rockville Seniors, Inc

7 months 3 weeks 1 day 22 hours ago


Tell us a little bit about yourself and what has inspired you to be a teacher? 
I became a teacher somewhat accidentally, when I was given a teaching fellowship in my graduate program in computer science. I really liked it, and went on to have several computer science teaching jobs. Later, when my kids had all moved out, I came back to teaching when I volunteered with the Literacy Council of Montgomery County. I discovered that I love ESOL and love working with adults.

What are the biggest challenges you face as an ESOL teacher? 
The biggest challenge is to recognize when my teaching style is a mismatch with a student’s learning style. Especially when the student is communicating with a reduced English vocabulary, it can be difficult to find successful teaching techniques. It’s also challenging to work with a group of students who have different levels of English proficiency.

What has teaching remotely during a global pandemic taught you? 
I have discovered that my students are much more resourceful and motivated than I had ever thought!  They have been eager to learn how to manage the technology, and I think that has given them a confidence boost that carries over to their English learning.

What advice would you give to a new ESOL teacher or volunteer? 
I think the most important skill a teacher can have is the ability to really listen to the student. It sometimes takes critical listening to understand what the student is really asking, or really misunderstanding. I also think it’s valuable to admit when you don’t know the answer to a question. To show you are also willing to learn something will help build a stronger connection with the students.

What have been your favorite pastimes during COVID-19? 
I’ve always done handwork; sewing, knitting, crocheting. I’ve been able to work on more projects; it’s been a way to enjoy the time that I’ve had to spend staying at home.

What do you find most rewarding about your work? 
Of course, it’s always rewarding to know that I’ve helped someone learn and grow in their English mastery.  But more than that, I really enjoy building a relationship with my students.  Having that connection brings depth to our communication, and it’s also just fun to learn about what my students have done in their lives.

What is something you learned about your students during this remote teaching period?
In a way, teaching online has helped to strengthen my connections with my students.  On Zoom, I see them sitting in their homes, see what is in their environment, as they can see what is in mine. This gives us both a more immediate sense of what our lives are like outside of the “classroom,” and also gives us more to talk about!  I’ve been blessed to have a great group of students to work with during this time.
 

Tables or Technology

8 months 1 week 2 days 22 hours ago

Authored by: Kathy Stevens

Tables or Technology?

We are approaching another set of holidays where, in pre-pandemic times, sitting together with family and friends around a table for a Seder dinner or Easter brunch was a typical and special part of the celebrations. Gathering at tables was essential.

Over the last year, we have substituted technology for tables. We’ve gathered in squares on screens—Zoom Seders, Thanksgiving and Christmas Zoom meals and celebrations; you name it, we have Zoomed it. Technology has helped us remain connected to important life events. I have attended a Zoom wedding and a Zoom memorial service, and I have friends who attended a Zoom bris! Having access to technology and the ability to innovate has salvaged some sense of interconnectedness, especially for major life events.

MCAEL’s work has moved to solutions based on distance learning and technology. What has become obvious to me for the future is that we should not be making choices about gatherings in “either/or” terms , that is, either in person or virtually.. Instead, we should be thinking in “and” terms: how do we maximize the positives of being in person and using on-line tools?

While technology has allowed new learners to join classes, especially young parents, for whom the on-line class structure has reduced the childcare, transportation, and time challenges they face. However, many others do not have reliable WiFi or computers that are necessary to fully participate in classes. Further, to build relationships, conduct pre- and post-testing, and support learners, there is still a need for in-person time. As I see it, the next steps are not to decide “when we are going back 100%” for everything, but rather how we integrate online and in person experiences to expand inclusivity, leverage time, and create safe spaces for our work and our celebrations. One can imagine a class that meets at the beginning and end of the session and perhaps one time in the middle as needed. 

I certainly do miss the table gatherings. I miss setting a dinner table and I miss setting a meeting table. We will be back at in person tables and we will have new hybrid models with which to work. The possibilities to serve more adult learners and connect in different ways are exciting.

As we work on this, I wish you all a Happy Easter and Passover and hope that you enjoy whatever gatherings and celebrations that are available safely to you now.
 

Instructor Spotlight: Sitara Maruf|Islamic Center of Maryland

9 months 4 days 21 hours 49 min ago


Tell us a little bit about yourself and what has inspired you to be a teacher?
Originally from India, I have been living in the United States for 30 years. I have a master’s in science and a master’s in journalism. I have been a college instructor and a journalist, and I’m an author of an English grammar book. Apart from teaching ESOL part-time, I am a science writer.

Credit for my interest in ESOL teaching goes to my relatives. Back home, many relatives were taking ESOL classes, and on my visit in 2010, they expressed some of their doubts.  I ended up teaching them English grammar every day, and, when it was time for me to leave, they asked when I would return to teach them again! They were overjoyed when I told them I could continue teaching from US too. We installed computers and Internet for them in specific homes, and nearby relatives would gather for the class. I taught them via Skype and Go to Meeting. So, they and other college students inspired and encouraged me to continue teaching.

What are the biggest challenges you face as an ESOL teacher?
Each ESOL learner has a different learning experience, background, and cultural heritage. Some have experience in academic and work environment, and others have never stepped in one! The challenge is to ensure that my instructions and explanations resonate with all. Since adults are conscious learners, it’s important to pick cues and give lot of encouragement.

What has teaching remotely during a global pandemic taught you?
I have been teaching remotely since 2010; however, teaching during the pandemic has brought in many online resources, that were lacking previously, or perhaps I was not aware of. During the pandemic, I started teaching ESOL at the Islamic Center of Maryland and gained valuable insights and input from them. Now that human interactions are fewer in the pandemic, I appreciate the interactions and gratification that come from teaching even more! It has given me and my students a wonderful sense of community besides a tremendous learning experience in a supportive environment.

What advice would you give to a new ESOL teacher or volunteer?
To teach well, teachers must have the passion to teach and also be passionate about the subject they are teaching. Teachers’ knowledge and interest in the subject as well as their energy, enthusiasm, and passion in teaching shows through and inspires and motivates students. Besides getting extensive knowledge of the subject, prepare well for classes, expect the unexpected questions and issues, and enforce discipline and consistency.

What have been your favorite pastimes during COVID-19?
I like reading, writing, and watching documentaries. During COVID-19, we discovered many hiking trails, parks, farms, botanical gardens, and country clubs nearby. As a family, we enjoy nature walks.

What do you find most rewarding about your work?
Every class is a treat for me when I see the students’ happy faces, their enthusiasm, gratitude, and how they look up to me. In the short-term, seeing increments in their knowledge and confidence makes me very happy. Over the years, I have felt my effort has been worth it, when they share news about better job and education opportunities or independently completing tasks that require higher-order skills.  One mutual benefit in teaching English to adults is that we can have productive, interesting, and fun conversations on many topics, which broadens our horizons.

What is something you learned about your students during this remote teaching period?
Each student is accomplished in a way and contributes positively to local communities.  They also help one another and have their Zoom sessions to practice English or discuss homework.  The English classes have given them another avenue to expand their social and learning network. Despite their work and family obligations and the difficulties that the pandemic has added, they are a happy, chirpy, thankful, and dedicated bunch who finds great pleasure in learning and in the small things of daily life.

Dance Party & Books

9 months 1 week 21 hours 49 min ago

(Click on the image to view the conversation)

Blog Author: Kathy Stevens

Did you know our libraries - Montgomery County Public Libraries offer dance parties?  Well, that is one of many things I learned today during my MCAEL Connects Conversation with Anita Vassallo, the Director of MCPL.
MCAEL counts MCPL as one of our largest partners. Not only do the libraries offer conversation clubs for adults who are starting their English language education, but many of the libraries offer ESOL collections, and are always welcoming to adult ESOL class field trips and the opportunities our instructors make available for ESOL students to obtain their library cards.

Among the four books I am currently reading, I am struck by botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass.  First, I highly recommend the book as a lovely journey thinking about our natural world through a science lens, but also as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. This has led me to think about who my teachers are and who we learn from as we move through times that bring us great change.  As an organization, MCAEL continues to rely on the power of the coalition  - program staff, instructors, learners, other community partners, and more – to listen and learn so we can adapt and move forward. I look forward to being in dialogue with many of you as we listen and learn together.

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