By: Leah Qiu
“You can come and sit next to me,” Rockistan said, when I join to observe Focus Point’s English as a Second Language (ESL) class. Rockistan immigrated to America from war-torn Syria in 2017 with her husband and two small children and has since given birth to a third child, a baby boy. Unable to complete university in Syria, Rockistan and her husband attend ESL class twice a week. The classroom is lively, the students joke around with Anna Meenan, English Language Acquisition (ELA) teacher and lead Refugee English Language teacher. Students laugh to each other in languages like Arabic and Farsi. “Alright, thank you for playing. Let’s get back to English class,” Meenan says, passing out a spelling and citizenship questions test. In Syria, Rockistan was taught British English and finds it difficult to re-learn hundreds of everyday words in American English. She gives me a worried look and begins her test.
The students’ skill sets in Meenan’s ESL classes are “all across the board,” Meenan said. Students range from having doctorate degrees in their home countries to being completely preliterate. “Some students have never held a pencil before and are illiterate in their own native tongue,” Meenan said. A key to working with individuals learning English as a second language is delivering information in more ways than words. Body language and repetition are skills Meenan uses often in her ESL classes. Connecting English to the students’ native languages is also beneficial. “Students really appreciate when we celebrate their languages too, often times I’ll ask them how to say words in their language and then we’ll have a discussion,” Meenan said. A lot of times, the class finds that there are similarities in language and how similar sounding words “reinforces the meaning in one’s own mind,” Meenan said. For lower level ESL students, Meenan says she uses a lot of pictures, where she finds connecting imagery to words and meanings is very effective.
When working with immigrants and refugees, there are certain do’s and don'ts. Diana Huigera. Executive Director and Founder of the Rocky Mountain Welcome center explains about the importance of mindfulness and trauma informed work. “You need to be careful with the types of images you show to refugees who have gone through trauma,” Huigera said, “You wouldn’t show a picture of just an arm or just a leg to a refugee because you don’t know what they might have seen.” Photos of body parts could be triggering for refugees that have gone through and seen traumatic things in war torn countries, areas with high violence and oppression.
I sat in on the 2-4 level, or high beginning to high intermediate ESL class while they were being tested in grammar and citizenship. Meenan says the citizenship test includes three questions about the constitution most Americans can’t answer. “I tailor classes to what students actually need and want,” Meenan said. After a class discussion, students voted to review and study the U.S. Citizenship test, a 100 question civics test requiring immigrants correctly answer six out of ten randomized questions as part of their interview to gain citizenship. For immigrants, memorizing answers to questions isn’t the hardest part, it comes down to literacy and language skills. Meenan helps her students navigate the information overload. “I’ll do my best to at least get them familiar with the questions and answers. They’re not going to know all the terms but if they can at least recognize it, we’ve accomplished step one of the hurdle,” Meenan said.
Mindfulness is important when working with immigrants and refugees. Being aware and engaged in trauma informed work is critical so you don’t encounter the problem of triggering or retraumatizing an individual. “[Teaching ESL] is good for me too. I learn a lot about English and how confusing it is. And how confusing it can be. I also learn a lot about their language,” Meenan said, “It just is interesting to be in that classroom, or in any classroom. You learn a lot about yourself and others. I think it’s the same for the students too.”