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WTC's GOAL Instructors L to R: Carol Anderson, Cynthia Gran, and Kathy Bartel. Kathy Bartel and students
WTC's GOAL Instructors L to R: Carol Anderson, Cynthia Gran, and Kathy Bartel. Kathy Bartel and students

A Look at Western Technical College’s Adult ESOL Program

By Katie Groves, April 2007

The students of Room 103 are all crowded around a table in the middle of the room.  It is five minutes before class is scheduled to start, and most of the students are accounted for.  One student lifts up a turkey roasting pan and examines it more closely.  Two are inspecting a meat thermometer with quizzical looks on their faces.  Four other students are laughing together, chattering away in their native language of Hmong while pointing at the cooking equipment and gesturing wildly.  The teacher is busy writing vocabulary words on the white board in her careful teacher handwriting.  The classroom interpreter pauses during his explanation of a gravy boat to answer another student’s question about a cutting board.

The room is an explosion of rainbows and alphabets.  One poster lists the days of the week.  A piece of paper is taped next to the word “Wednesday” and says “Today is…”  There is a calendar at the front of the classroom next to the pencil sharpener.  A fat turkey is dancing its way across November, and a large yellow arrow points to today’s date.  On the side wall a round “weather wheel” is turned towards a rain cloud.  It must still be turned on yesterday’s weather because today the sun is shining brightly.  A series of posters on the back wall teach about colors, fruits, vegetables, and animals.   

The teacher asks the class to sit down, and then begins handing out the day’s worksheet.  The students find their chairs and open their notebooks.  One elderly woman has already begun painstakingly copying the words on the board into her notebook.  The pencil seems foreign in her hand, and the letters do not come easily.  Other students try to sound out the new words written on the board.  One student pronounces “Thanksgiving” flawlessly; another stumbles over “meat thermometer.”  There is an excited feeling, almost like electricity, in the air.  The students know this is going to be an extended weekend due to an American holiday, and they are more than ready for the break.  Just then, two more students join the classroom.  “Sorry we late, Teacher,” one student announces boldly.  “This morning… my car die!”

“Welcome Foua and Xong,” the teacher replies warmly.  “We are writing these words in our notebooks.”  She points towards the white board and then finishes distributing the worksheets.

As I observe the class today, I begin to realize that the teacher standing at the front of the classroom could very well be me in two years.  Although part of me feels ready to get out into the teaching profession, another part realizes that I still have a lot to learn before I am ready to have my own class.

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Western Technical College in La Crosse offers a program titled GOAL (Goal Oriented Adult Learning) for adult individuals.  This program is also available at Western’s outlying campuses in Tomah,Independence, Viroqua, Sparta, Mauston, and Black River Falls.  According to Western’s website, the GOAL program is for those “who wish to improve their academic skills, to complete their GED or high school credential, to prepare for college level classes, or to improve English language skills in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program,” (visit the GOAL website athttp://www.wwtc.edu/goal/default.asp).  

The GOAL program offers five different programs of instruction to help its diverse student population:  workforce education; incarcerated youth and adult education; adult basic education; developmental studies; and ESOL education.  The ESOL program “offers classes and labs for students who wish to develop more proficient English skills in listening, speaking, reading, and writing,” (visit the GOAL ESOL website at http://www.wwtc.edu/goal/ESOL.asp).  These classes are available for all levels of English proficiency, from “no English” to advanced.

This November, I had the chance to interview three ESOL instructors at the La Crosse Western campus.  Carol Anderson is the ESOL program coordinator, while Cynthia Gran and Kathy Bartel are ESOL instructors.  I asked them questions relating to their jobs as ESOL teachers in the GOAL program.  I found many similarities between their answers, and I learned what it means to be an ESOL teacher.   

What are the basic purposes of the GOAL ESOL program here at Western Technical College?

This depends on the level of English proficiency of each individual student.  For many of the Hmong, from the newest wave of refugees, the purpose of this program is to teach them “survival English.” “Our students need to be able to get jobs, buy groceries, talk to their children’s teachers, and fill out forms,” said Carol.  Cynthia added, “Our students need to be able to get a job.  But at the job, they need to be able to communicate with their boss and coworkers.”  Kathy responded, “They need to become socialized to American culture.” 

Some of the ESOL students are more advanced.  Many have lived in America for a number of years, and are already able to read, write, and speak English.  “Some of these students want to go on to earn their 509 degree,” Cynthia told me.  Students who are otherwise unable to take the standardized GED test, such as those with limited English proficiency, now have an option to earn their HSED through a program titled “5.09.”  These students must demonstrate certain competencies in the classroom related to: applied reading and study skills (such as science, social studies, and geography); English; mathematics; and quality of life (such as consumerism, career awareness, computer literacy, health, and civics).  According to Cynthia, students need to average approximately 80% on the classroom quizzes throughout the semester to be considered “competent.”  This is a Western standard, and is not required by the state.  Cynthia also told me that the 509 program is an excellent way for these students to really grasp the information the teachers are teaching, without the student being so focused on passing the test, which can lead to a lot of guessing.

There is currently one class of 509 students comprised mainly of the newest wave of Hmong refugees.  Some of these individuals had the opportunity to attend a little schooling while they lived in the Thai refugee camps, and came to America with some basic literacy skills.  Others are those who have simply excelled in their regular ESOL classrooms, and are ready to continue their studies.

What role does this program play in the La Crosse community (both Hmong and non-Hmong)?

The three teachers were in consensus that the GOAL program is more than just an academic program.  For the Hmong students, this program has helped to make the transition from their home country to America easier.  As Carol put it, “Most of these people were basically dropped off in America, and left on their own.  Here at Western, we don’t just teach English.  We are teaching them survival skills and providing them with a variety of services.  We kind of cushion the blow for them.” 

They went on to inform me of a number of services that Western has provided for the students in the past.  Through this program, they have brought in speakers to talk about a variety of topics ranging from nutrition to personal finances.  The students have learned about American culture first-hand through field trips to places like Goodwill, Wal-Mart, Wells Fargo Bank, the community garden, and River Fest.  Health care workers have come in to perform basic health screenings. 

Kathy spoke about how the teachers also help the students fit in to their new culture on a social level.  For example, in Hmong culture it is socially acceptable for a person to burp while talking, and not say anything.  Similarly, it is acceptable for a person to clear their throat and spit in public.  These subjects are sometimes very sensitive, but the teachers take it upon themselves to teach their students American cultural expectations and acceptable social behaviors. 

Cynthia went on to say, “We help the La Crosse community accept our students by making people aware of them.”  The teachers agreed that they have seen the La Crosse community continually reach out to assist the Hmong community.  One example of this was last winter when a local church donated enough money for each student to purchase a pair of boots.  The teachers frequently receive donations of clothing and household items that they are then able to redistribute among the students.     

Which teaching strategies work best in your classroom?

Carol immediately responded that it is important for a teacher to keep his or her lesson plan fluid.  “Sometimes you just have to let the lesson plan go,” she remarked, laughing.  Kathy later stressed the importance of making the lessons “real” and “useful” for the students, while taking their interests into consideration.  Kathy told me, “Take today’s lesson, for instance: how to cook a Thanksgiving meal.  Is it in the curriculum?  No.  But it’s something the students asked me about.  They wanted to learn about it.”  Kathy was able to work speaking, reading, and writing into the lesson that the students wanted to learn about. 

Cynthia’s first response to this question was “humor.”  She talked about the importance of the students being relaxed in the classroom, and humor helps.  “Students learn much better when they aren’t so scared.”  She suggested not letting students get “bogged down” with the enormity of the task of learning English.  She tries to keep the atmosphere in her classroom light and easy-going.  In fact, she has even earned herself the nickname “Teacher Funny.”       

Two of the teachers agreed about the importance of repetition in the classroom.  Kathy talked about how she tries to teach to the different learning strategies.  She incorporates speaking, reading, writing, and visual learning activities all for one topic or lesson.  Carol explained how she uses “Mountain Math / Mountain Language” activities in her classroom as a reviewing technique.  The basic idea behind Mt. Math/Mt. Language is that the teacher utilizes a giant reusable bulletin board to review math and language concepts previously taught (visit their website at www.mtmath.com).  Carol uses a vinyl board with clear pockets which she places concept cards in to review.  She told me, “This is a very quick way of reviewing what they learned earlier in the week.  It’s great for repetition, and they are able to learn the key concepts very quickly.” 

Carol also uses experiential learning techniques in her classroom.  Each semester she takes her students on a variety of field trips to local businesses and attractions.  Later, the students are expected to write reflective stories about these trips, as well as any of their own personal experiences, using the new vocabulary words that they learned.  The students are able to write stories that are interesting to them, and in this way the vocabulary words are learned easier. 

One final strategy that Kathy talked to me about was the use of realia in the classroom.  She tries to bring in real objects to have her students look at, touch, and use as much as possible.  One week, she brought in various household and gardening tools such as hammers, screwdrivers, a shovel, and even a rake.  Another time, during the “feelings unit,” she took Polaroid pictures of each student acting out a certain feeling.  She then put all of these pictures on the wall so the students could look at their own faces, and those of their classmates, to associate the emotions with the correct vocabulary word.  “One elderly lady’s word was ‘lonesome.’”  Kathy remembered.  “I didn’t know it at the time, but she had to leave her husband behind in Thailand because of some logistical problems.  She had just moved to a brand new country with her eight children all by herself.  Well, after the interpreter explained to her what face she was supposed to make, she looked into the camera and had the perfect face for the word. Every time I looked at it on the wall, it about broke my heart.”  

How would a student, such as me, prepare for a career in this field?

Carol and Cynthia both suggested that getting a background in elementary education is essential to working with adult ESL students.  Teachers of ESL need a basic knowledge of how people learn, as well as a basic knowledge of how to teach a second language.  They suggested I pay close attention in elementary literacy classes, especially to phonics.  Cynthia especially suggested taking at least an introductory linguistics class.  “You need to know how sounds are made in the mouth,” she explained.  ESL teachers also have to be able to explain to their students how to make these sounds.   

An ESL teacher needs to be knowledgeable about the cultural differences among the students in his or her classroom.  Cynthia recommended reading books about the Hmong, as well as going to their cultural events.  “Go to their New Year.  Go to their weddings and other celebrations,” she said to me.  She also talked about being aware of their cultural and spiritual beliefs.  For instance, the Hmong find it offensive if a person pats their child on the head.  Traditionally, they believe the child’s soul resides in the head, and that the head is therefore a sacred place which should not be touched.  ESL teachers need to be aware of how even the simplest, well-meaning gestures can be extremely offensive to their students. 

Kathy echoed the need for teachers to be aware of their students’ diversity.  In addition to reading books about the Hmong, and attending their New Year celebration, she also talked about how she exchanges cultural craftwork with her students, “Those ladies will bring in their pa ndau (the Hmong form of embroidery) pieces, and I’ll show them my quilting squares.  They start clucking their tongues and will ooh and ahh over my stitching, and I’m amazed at their own stitching talents.”

As an ESL teacher, it is often helpful if you learn some of the students’ native language.  Kathy explained, “Let them see that you are trying to learn.  Let them see the difficulties you have in struggling to correctly pronounce their words.”  This will help the students see that the teacher is making an effort to understand their culture.  It shows the students that the teacher cares about them, and respects them for being who they are. 

Lastly, Cynthia and Kathy both mentioned the importance of being a student volunteer, either at Western, or at local elementary schools.  This is an excellent way to get out into the TESOL field, and to gain valuable experience.  Volunteers can work in the classrooms with the teachers, and learn from these teachers.  Or, volunteers can work individually with students outside of the classroom and gain experience that way.

What are some of the most important things you learned in college that help you every day in your classroom?

Each teacher had her own thoughts on this question.  For Carol, the most important thing was how to have patience.  ESL teachers can repeat the same word dozens of times before a student will be able to understand, spell, or pronounce that word correctly.  She told me that it is important that teachers are aware of their own teaching styles.  “I like to talk.  That’s how I like to teach.  But some students aren’t audio learners.”  She has to make an effort to incorporate other learning and teaching styles into her lessons, so that particular style does not dictate during the semester.  Carol also really appreciated her linguistics class.  “Think of the word ‘night,’” she instructed me.  “It is not spelled like it sounds.  And the whole ‘silent e’ thing.  Why do we do that?”  Teachers, especially those whose native language isEnglish, need to keep these idiosyncrasies in mind when they are teaching to non-native learners. 

Cynthia constantly has to be aware of how people learn, and especially how people acquire language.  She told me that a lot of the techniques for teaching language are the same for adults and children.  

Kathy discussed the importance of using “scaffolding” techniques, as well as building upon the prior knowledge of students, and making connections.  “You need to always be checking their comprehension, and making sure that they really do understand what you are trying to teach them,” she explained.  She also stressed the importance of knowing and understanding the patterns in the English language, such as how to form questions. 

What are some of the difficulties of being an ESL teacher?

As an ESL teacher, the language barrier can be a huge frustration.  Sometimes teachers are unable to explain complex ideas to the students who have limited English.  Cynthia described to me how when the Hmong first came to America, the teachers did not have any interpreters in the classroom.  “At that time, no one spoke Hmong and English,” she explained.  Teaching to these first Hmong students was very challenging.  Sometimes, even today, ESL teachers do not have access to interpreters in every class.  “You end up using a lot of hand gestures to get your point across,” Kathy told me.  Even then, it is sometimes difficult to make sure the students understand that is being taught.  “Interpreters in the classroom help a lot,” she said.   

Another frustration that comes with the job is having differing levels of English competency in one classroom.  The students at Western are assessed by the teachers to determine which class level they should be enrolled in.  But even within the low-, middle-, and high-level English learners, there are of course different levels.  Kathy explained, “You don’t want to leave anyone behind, but you don’t want to hold anyone back, either.”  Some students have genuine learning disabilities, and may learn slower than other students.  For other students, learning English at this time is not one of their top priorities, and they do not take their studies seriously.  Still others are not able to devote the time needed to study after school due to busy work or family schedules. 

Sometimes students are forced to quit school because they are unable to find or afford child care, their work schedules conflict with the school schedule, or they are just too busy with “life”.  This is extremely disappointing and frustrating to the ESL teachers.  The teachers know, and the students know that learning English is extremely important.  But sometimes it is just not possible for a student to attend school at this point in his or her life.  As Carol said, “Some of our students work at Ashley Furniture in Arcadia.  Their bus leaves at 1:00 each afternoon, and most nights they don’t get home until 1:00 in the morning.  Yet they are here at 8:00 a.m., droopy-eyed, but with a genuine interest to learn.”  School ends at 12:00 p.m., and these students have an hour to go home and eat before they have to start the process all over again.

Cynthia talked about the opposition from La Crosse community members of having these refugees settle in this area.  There are quite a few myths running around the La Crosse community that are not only entirely untrue, but also hurtful.  So many of these students are trying so hard to get good jobs, become self-sufficient, and adjust to their new lives in America.  It is frustrating to see the racism and hard-feelings that sometimes come from local residents, especially when it is aimed towards the Hmong people Cynthia teaches. 

Carol discussed the roadblocks that exist, keeping the Hmong people from getting good paying jobs.  “Our students come to school because they want to get better paying jobs.  But even after years of schooling, many of them will more than likely just end up in minimum wage jobs anyways,” she told me, clearly frustrated.  She told me that there really are not any job training programs for her ESL students.  There is no transition from school to work.  So no matter how hard some of these students study, most of them will be unable to achieve their career goals.       

What are some of the greatest joys of teaching ESL?

The immediate answer from all three teachers was being able to watch their students’ academic and personal growth develop, sometimes within weeks of attending classes at Western.  “When they first register, they are paralyzed with fear.  Within one month, you can watch them laughing and walking down the hallway with their new friends,” Carol said, smiling.  She continued, “Some of these students did not speak a single word of English when they came to our school.  Now these are the same students that are initiating conversations with me in the parking lot at school.  Later, these students begin to addan ‘s’ to make nouns plural.  They can finally correctly pronounce the ‘r’ sound, and the different vowel sounds.  And then they come to class and say, ‘Today, Teacher, I want to just talk English.’  They have become so confident in their conversation skills that they want to spend fifteen to thirty minutes just conversing with one another in their new language.” 

Cynthia added, “I love to see when they finally get it, when they finally catch on to what we’re teaching them.  And then to see them able to cope in the world…”  Kathy went to say, “You see when they finally realize that what we are doing in the classroom makes sense, and they are excited.  There is always that satisfaction of knowing that maybe you made a difference in their lives, and knowing that they definitely made a difference in your life.” 

Kathy explained to me one of her favorite aspects of being an ESL teacher: the ability to share yourself as a real person.  When her students come in to her classroom each day, many of them give her a hug.  They are excited to be back at school, with their friends and their teacher-friend.  “When they give you that hug, you know that you are making a personal connection with them, and it’s a good feeling.”    

As far as teaching ESL at Western, the three teachers had nothing but positive things to say.  There is good camaraderie among the ESL teachers at Western.  In fact, a few years ago the ESL teaching department received an award which recognized the staff’s high satisfaction with their job environment, from an employee climate satisfaction survey administered by Western.  The teachers at Western all work together, sharing their unique talents and strengths to provide the best possible learning experiences for their students.    

When asked if there were any last comments they wanted to make before I concluded the interview, this is how the teachers responded.

Carol:  “It’s a fun job; very rewarding.  We have wonderful students here at Western, who respect the teachers.  Our dean is wonderful, too.  He hires people and lets them do their job without a lot of micro-management.”

Cynthia:  “It’s a fun job, and we have a good department here.  I kind of fell into the profession, and I never looked back.”  “The teachers are all real good about sharing material.  We all kind of learn from each other.”

Kathy:  “Our dean provides us with a lot of support.  We have in-services, workshops, and conferences that are very important to our development as teachers.  Our dean is always willing to let us try something new, like different field trips or teaching strategies.”  

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It is noon, and the room has become a flurry of handouts, notebooks, and loud good-byes.  Some students are hurriedly gathering their papers and pencils, shoving them into their backpacks.  The teacher and interpreter are answering a few last-minute questions from other students about the day’s lesson.  One student opens the door, and the room begins to empty out.

“Good-bye Teacher!” 

“See you next week, Teacher!” 

“Have good Thanksgiving, Teacher!”

“Thank you, Teacher!”

The teacher looks up from the white board and answers in Hmong, “Sheen-gee-... uh… next week!”  She realizes she does not know the word for “next week”.  The students do not seem to mind as they rush out of the classroom. 

One student stops his retreat half-way, and comes back into the classroom.  “Xya hnub ntxiv, Teacher.  Mean like ‘next week’.  Sib ntsib dua xya hnub ntxiv.  ‘See you next week’.”

“Thank you, Ger, I will try to remember that for next time,” the teacher smiles at the middle aged gentleman, so genuinely interested in helping her speak better Hmong.

“It’s O.K., Teacher.  I help you remember,” Ger says as he walks away.

When all of the students have left the classroom the teacher smiles and shrugs at me.  “So, what did you think?”

“I think I have a lot more to learn,” I reply slowly.  “But this is what I want to do.”