Monday, September 17, 2012

LCI Instructors Teach Local Refugees

LCI instructors have partnered with the Coalition for Refugee Resettlement to teach English to local refugees. 

By Kama Weatherholt Wagner

Instructors from the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute are stepping out of the classroom to teach English language learners in Southwest Virginia.  Beginning in January 2012, LCI teachers Susan Neu and Jason Lovelace spent two hours each Monday and Wednesday afternoon in Roanoke working with the Coalition for Refugee Resettlement.  The CRR, a project of VT Engage, unites local students and professionals with the aim of assisting refugees who have resettled in the area. 
The CRR was formed in 2006 to assist a group of African refugees at the Maple Grove housing community in Roanoke and since has expanded to include four public housing communities where many of the families live.  It is primarily driven by Virginia Tech students, who teach adult ESL classes, tutor children, and provide classes in citizenship.  Most importantly, they offer an open and safe environment so that the refugees feel welcome in the United States.   

Susan Neu and Jason Lovelace
Surrounded by colleges and universities, the CRR has access to many resources, including instructors at the LCI.  From January to May, Neu and Lovelace taught an adult ESL class for four hours each week.  The students in their classes were primarily women in their 40s and 50s, mothers and housewives with young children.  The children often accompanied their parents to class, where they worked independently on their own homework and even helped their parents with their studies.  The adults were frustrated when they saw how quickly their children were learning because they wanted to develop their skills at the same speed.

Unique obstacles sometimes slowed the process.  Some refugees, already fluent in their native languages and French, were learning to speak English as a third language.  On the other hand, many were not literate in any language and had to first work on understanding the concepts of words, letters, and writing. 

For Lovelace and Neu, the experience was challenging but rewarding.  “I was able to focus more on the student side of teaching,” Lovelace said.  Neu agreed, adding that she found great value in teaching this particular group of students. “It was important to scale our goals down,” she explained, “and to realize that tiny baby steps are enough.” 

In spite of the barriers they faced, the students were determined to learn to read and write in English.  Lovelace and Neu focused on using visuals, creating their own booklets with pictures and words.  Lovelace had particular success with a shopping lesson focused on food and clothes.  “They had fun and seemed to understand and relate to that topic,” he said.  Neu had a similar experience when teaching students about greetings such as hello and how are you.  She was happy to reach the stage where she “felt like there was true recognition.”

Progress was slow but steady, and both instructors believe that the experience was ultimately beneficial to the students.  Lovelace looks to the future for evidence of his students’ success – “I hope that one day they’ll be out in public, something will click and the light bulb will go off, I learned that!"
On Sept. 17th,  LCI instructor Kay Gude will continue the project, and she says she’s looking forward to this new teaching experience.  “I’m excited to work with the refugee students because I enjoy helping newcomers build their language foundation.”  

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