Tea and Sympathy: Building Community in the Adult ESL Classroom

By Cathy Sunshine

Don’t tell anyone, but we’ve been having tea in the classroom at break time lately. Sometimes cupcakes too.

It started as a way to keep warm. The heat in the church has been iffy over the last two months. Puffy coats and woolly scarves have been a popular fashion statement in our classroom. One of our students is an avid baker, and he sometimes brings in goodies. Then one evening another student brought a thermos of piping hot tea to share.

Banana cupcakes brought in by our class baker, Andres.

Banana cupcakes brought in by our class baker, Andres.

It made for a cozy atmosphere. That got me thinking about the importance of warmth in the classroom, not just the kind from the furnace — which seems to be functioning better lately — but also the social kind. What motivates students to leave their homes on cold, dark winter nights and trek to class, four nights a week for 12 weeks? Or give up their weekends? English, yes, but it’s got to be more than that.

I think the answer is the community they find here. For recent immigrants, LETC is a welcoming place in a society that at times may seem indifferent or hostile. For some of our students, school is the principal, if not the only, place where they can make friends with native English speakers and with immigrants from countries other than their own.

Why is this important? Gretchen Bitterlin, an ESL teacher trainer in San Diego, notes that a sense of community in the classroom favors student persistence — that is, it keeps students coming regularly. She wrote on the Ventures e-newsletter:

One day, I walked into my family literacy ESL class, and it was quieter than usual. Delia, who had almost never missed a class, was absent. After I asked if anyone had any problems over the weekend, the students reported that Delia’s 5-year-old daughter had fallen and suffered a brain injury and was in intensive care at the hospital. Within minutes, the students took up a collection to help Delia in the weeks ahead, since she would not be able to work. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the students and their networking to help out a fellow student. The incident exemplified the strong sense of community that existed in that class. This provided an atmosphere that facilitated learning and persistence at a higher level than I had seen in previous classes. When students get to know each other like a family, they depend on each other for moral support and continue to come to school, even when times are difficult.

How, then, to achieve this kind of fellowship in class? One problem is that while a feeling of community encourages regular attendance, regular attendance is needed to build community. Classes can’t bond when students show up irregularly, as happens often in adult ESL. Classes may fill slowly, as people trickle in over the first couple of weeks, and they may also dwindle as the term wears on. Lucy Hamachek, who teaches the Advanced Workplace class, notes that “building community is hard without that critical mass.”

Some of this is beyond our control as teachers. But there are definitely things we can do. Mary Janice Dicello teaches Basic A at Language ETC, for students who are complete beginners in English. She likes to set a positive tone early:

The first few Basic classes always begin with introductions, including first and last names and countries. We play memory games to encourage all our students to learn the names of their classmates and use desk cards with first names on them. We count the students from each country and cheer for the country with the most students, and laugh with and show sympathy for the student who has no one from his country. We use country flags, and students learn to say the colors of their flags. They enjoy finding their own countries on a world map. We use a magnifying glass to find tiny El Salvador, the country that usually has the largest number of students in our class.

As teachers, we try to set an atmosphere of respect and patience, laced with good humor — sometimes silliness — that serves as a model for how we expect our students to behave toward one another. It really works. The quick ones help the struggling ones, and students seem to incorporate everyone into their break-time groups. And finally we take a group photo that they all treasure as a memory of their first English class in America and the friends they made.

Having students work in small groups or  teams encourages camaraderie even among those from very different backgrounds.

Having students work in small groups or teams encourages camaraderie even among those from very different backgrounds.

Lucy Hamachek comments:

The obvious things we all do early in the term — having students talk about themselves and their aspirations, breaking students up into teams for competitions — help somewhat. If the teachers can remember some personal details about each student, that one has a cat or another works at Chipotle, they can weave these details into examples of grammar points. It shows the teacher is personally involved, and that makes all the students feel more connected to the class.

In my experience the level of community depends to a significant extent on the mix of students, something we can’t control. One class may be more reserved than another. Occasionally you have a “firecracker” in the group. Teachers can use humor to either bring out the good points or, in some instances, blunt the potential downsides of one or more students.

I asked my Advanced Plus students by e-mail what they think helps build group spirit in the classroom. One student wrote:

It is interesting the subject you are about to touch in your blog. Building “community” certainly depends on many factors. The way in which the ice is broken when a course starts could certainly impact the path of the entire course in a term. From my viewpoint, giving respect of all students opinions and making them feel really heard might impact positively the classroom atmosphere.

Asked what factors might make it hard to build community, he said:

I wonder why a welcoming atmosphere in the classroom is not entirely reached. Might it be because there are no activities that allow a proper mix between students, knowing each other and get acquaintance? Might it be because the students do not feel comfortable when they participate in front of the class? Might it be because the teacher does not allow any interaction and group activities and the class turns into plain?

An interesting word choice, but I know what he means. At Language ETC, we emphasize interaction and group activities, and our classes are almost never “plain.” One thing that seems to encourage interaction is arranging the chairs in a semicircle facing the board, so that the students can all see and talk to each other. It’s much friendlier than rows, where students stare at the backs of heads. At other times we pull the chairs into two small circles, each with one of the co-teachers. These small groups work especially well for conversation, encouraging greater intimacy and sharing.

Advanced students from China, Argentina, Spain, Senegal, and Russia chat after graduation last summer. With so many languages, students need English to bring them together.

Advanced students from China, Argentina, Spain, Senegal, and Russia chat after graduation last summer. With so many languages in the class, students naturally turn to English for socializing.

Over the last few terms we’ve also been experimenting with a class e-mail group. It’s optional for students, but all the members of our Advanced Plus class have chosen to join. The teachers use the listserv to post study materials or links to articles. Students use it to chat with each other and the teachers in English. A recent thread discussed the best outerwear for surviving the DC winter. “Of course you must to wear a down jacket,” one student advised. “You don’t have to forget a cap and earmuffs!” said another.

Students also post when they’re sick and receive wishes for a quick recovery from their classmates. One student wrote, “I’m down with flu right now and can’t come to class tonight. Since we have a doctor in our group maybe she can give me some advice to get better faster. Anyway, bundle up everybody and keep warm.” Another classmate (not the doctor) advised, “You keep warm, drink tee with honey, watch movies, keep connect in the cloud and relax. I wish you to feel better very soon.”

Though we were uncertain at first how the listserv would work, the volume of messages has been quite modest, and there have not been any jokes or pictures of kittens. One caveat: Advanced students tend to be computer-savvy, and they can write enough English to keep up a conversation. An e-mail group might not be as feasible at the lower class levels.

Gretchen Bitterlin, the San Diego trainer, makes some additional suggestions that may be useful for us:

  • Get to class before the students and greet them as they arrive. Before class, when only a few students are there, get to know them. Make time after class to follow up with individuals about personal situations that may be affecting their attendance.
  • Do a lot of interactive group work. Use grouping strategies that allow students to practice with different students every day.
  • Make a class collage of pictures of students and their interests. Provide opportunities for students to share information about their countries and cultures.
  • Let students know they will be welcomed back to class if they have to be absent. Let them know that they were missed (but don’t make them feel guilty for missing class).
  • Finally, make language learning fun. A sense of humor breaks the ice, lowers barriers to communication, and builds community.
This entry was posted in Classroom Community, Teaching Tips & Resources, Washington English Center. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Tea and Sympathy: Building Community in the Adult ESL Classroom

  1. Pingback: Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington » Guest Post: Language ETC

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