Posts tagged ‘language’

The English Center: East Bay’s best kept secret?

I am mightily impressed by the English Center in Oakland. It’s a 30-year-old nonprofit preparing non-native speakers of English for full participation in American society. The center offers not only immersion in English language at seven different levels, but also computer training, job-specific test preparation, and employment services.

Lynne Wilkins, associate director for programs, gave me an extensive tour of classrooms and computer labs. The EC’s Jack London Square site is an open and spacious environment, with large common areas where students can gather. I sat in on three different language classes.

In the basic class students worked on verb conjugations: I like books. He likes television. We both like movies. The intermediate class listened for pronouns in the Beatles’ song “Something.” And the advanced class was working on articulation using tongue twisters: She sells sea shells by the seashore. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain. “That one’s easy,” students said. Henry Higgins, take note.

But what really moved me was the cultural, and cross-cultural, curriculum. It’s embodied in the diversity of students in every single classroom. Japanese businessman next to Russian healthcare worker next to preliterate Spanish speaker next to Eritrean refugee. Students must speak English to communicate with each other. Cultures bump up against each other, mix, collide. Language exercises are designed to bring these cultural issues to the fore.

In the intermediate class, the students were grappling with social controversies and rehearsing polite phrases for agreement and disagreement. Should men fight alongside women in the military? Should parents stop supporting their children once the children are adults? Should women be married at 16? I feel the same way. / I see things differently. / I don’t agree. I sat with a group of three women (one East Asian, one Eastern European, one possibly Central American) who certainly had some opinions on what women could do! “You can agree, or disagree, as long as you’re respectful,” said the teacher. …I wish everyone were taking that lesson!

Over and over again I heard stories of the students’ lives which moved me. Immigrants who had made it to this country any way they could after a dozen years in refugee camps. Highly skilled professionals who are eager to work here, or to train here and take their skills back home. Students participating in mock elections at the center, engaging in political debates and casting their ballots, safely, for the first time in their lives.

Managing such diverse classrooms demands a lot pedagogically and emotionally from the English Center instructors, so the EC provides training and mentoring to prepare new teachers for this specific environment. And the English Center organization as a whole is also learning and growing rapidly – they’re expanding into providing training for entire companies and union groups. Student enrollment is up by 40% from two years ago.

The center’s programs are tuition based but most students receive financial aid. And, as is typical of many nonprofits, EC’s vision goes far beyond its funding. An interactive whiteboard, a digital camera, donations towards books: any of those would be a welcome fulfillment of the wish list. Volunteers are also needed. You may find me among them!

September 12, 2010 at 1:04 pm Leave a comment


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