ESL instructor Joanne Stevens knows the importance of her job as a teacher of international students. When she was a registered nurse, one of her patients had attempted suicide rather than further endure the dishonor of failing as an English speaker. He had been a physicist China.
He is not alone in his anxiety. In hospitals and in classrooms, Stevens has observed how hard it is to learn a new language.
The English as a Second Language division is structured to teach students coming from diverse language backgrounds to read, write, listen and speak English in the classroom and workplace. ESL Chair Young Gee says that practice makes close to perfect when students can communicate in a way that is totally functional and professional.
As long as Stevens meets the division’s goals, she has the creative freedom to motivate her student toward success. She said that she constantly tries to make her daily lessons pertinent to her students’ lives. They recently read an essay on coping with the threat of terrorism, “I Refuse to Live in Fear” by Diane Bletter. Although it is dated 1996, Stevens is challenging her students to draw critical connections between what was true then and what is true now. Language requires more than simply understanding what words mean, she said. Students should be able to apply them to a cultural context in order to make sense of it.
“Critical thinking is one of the things we stress because that’s going to be demanded of them later,” Stevens said. She believes that students should be able to practice effective English syntax rather than just attempting a direct English translation. Students should be able to speak English to authority figures and in front of classmates. Confidence is the main key to learning the language, Stevens added.
ESL Web CT hosts message boards and chat rooms are available for students who are not at ease in a classroom setting.
Practice is hard and it takes time. In his native Puerto Rico, ESL student Jon Gabriel’s working English stopped at introducing himself. He estimates that one out of 40 people in his hometown of Guayama could understand English. Upon arrival in the U.S., he said that no one could understand his English. Since enrolling in ESL 133, three levels before English 120, his proficiency and confidence grew in bounds.
“You’re pushed to speak, practice, and solve your doubts.” He relishes in the encouraged self-statement in his listening and speaking class. “I love to watch people give of their own (ability),” he said.
Gabriel’s instructor, Richard Seltzer, thinks that although ESL at GCC meets his students’ needs, the program requires more resources. He said that teachers want a centralized location for instruction. He also says that more full-time instructors would standardize the outcomes.
Although California community colleges are required to have 75 percent full-time instructors to 25 percent part-time, GCC’s ratio is inversed.
Neither so few full-timers nor the majority of adjunct faculty can manage greater class loads.
Gee did offer some improvement to meeting the needs of ESL students. Next semester, ESL reading and writing classes will be paired in order to reinforce grammar skills often weakened when the classes are taken separately.
Gee said that understanding and realistic expectations go hand-in-hand with teaching English to a non-native speaker at the relatively intense pace of an impacted class. “Fluency means comprehensibility. You should clearly understand all a person’ ideas; still, certain elements of his culture never disappear from his speech, like an accent. Henry Kissinger’s thick accent couldn’t impede his profound intellect, but it did stay.”
In Stevens’ first year at GCC, one of her students went from a “D” average. to an “A” because of her encouragement and his tenacity. It came to serve as an inspiration to her and to future students. Behind each of her lesson plans is the challenge to motivate people in a critical state of development.