Teaching English and More to Our Newest Immigrants

Nov 18, 2011

Language its one of the largest barriers of assimilation for the newest immigrants and refugees coming to New Hampshire. It can make them feel isolated and keep them from getting jobs and a drivers license.  Groups in the state are helping to break those barriers by volunteering to teach English.  Exchange Executive Producer, Keith Shields visited one such place, the Holy Cross Family Learning Center in Manchester


Its late morning at the Holy Cross family Learning Center on the West Side of Manchester, about 40 men and women sit in small circles, sounding out words, reading small sentences and learning how to speak their first English phrases

The Holy Cross Family Learning center began in March of 2010 and moved to their new facility on Dubuque Street in Manchester in October of the same year.  Already it have a student body of 91 immigrants and refugees, all adults, they come from countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, as well as South, Central and North America.  Sister Pauline Murier helped found the program and is one of the volunteer English teachers.

“The majority of the people in my group are in their late 40s, early 50s, many of them never went to school in their former country and some of them came not even knowing how to hold a pencil. So there’s all of that. At the same time, they’re so committed and they’re very endearing. ”

 Holy Cross currently has 6, 2-hour English speaking classes a week as well as an evening citizenship class.  A staff of twenty three volunteer instructors, many of them retired grade school teachers, work with these students.  But teaching adults, of different ages, different backgrounds and who come from different education experiences, brings different challenges.  Judith McClellin was an elementary school teacher for 25 years and learned that lesson when she stared teaching at the learning center.

“When you have a class of fourth graders in front of you, you can easily assume certain knowledge, language and experience. When I have a 4th grade class, I knew they studied decimals in the 3rd grade. But now I can’t have any more assumptions, so I must be very careful to be attuned to what the students are bringing to me and what they need without any assumptions. ”

But teachers and students work hard.  Some of the refugees and immigrants, who do work, come from their third shifts, with little sleep to take these morning classes. But for many more, who have recently arrived in America, its language that is the barrier that’s holding them back, from getting a drivers license, getting a job and assimilating better into Granite State life... Hom Ataria came over to New Hampshire recently after living for years in a refugee camp in Nepal. I spoke to him through an interpreter

“No speak English, no English speaking ...He feels he doesn’t know English and he’s facing a great problem in language (Keith: since you have an interpreter, what would you like to express?).  He facing difficulties because of our language, and for that he’s not getting job also and he’s finding difficulty to share his feeling with other people and friends”

 So the teachers teach these students in a way that may be different than the English classes their sons and daughters receive in public school.  After getting past the ABCs and 123s, the next step says Sister Jacqueline Verville, whose the Executive Director of the Holy Cross Family Learning Center, is learning those words and phrases that will help them get them get though some of the simpler things about living in New Hampshire from shopping in a store to interacting at the most basic levels with those they need to talk to in Manchester.

“We move on to them writing their name, where they live, having them speak where they live, who they are, what their name is, their telephone number so when people ask them, they are able to  verbalize that.”

After that its basic skills, like filling out an application, talking on the telephone and understanding how time and currency works.  The teachers have seen vast improvements in the year and a half that they’ve been working with our state’s newest residents.  One sister said that the simple fact students can now call up and say that they can’t make it into school is testament. But there’s much more... Once again, sister Jackie Verville.

“I was very impressed last summer for example, when some of our people did not know about currency and yet they were selling some of the vegetables at the Peoplefest and making change. I was so happy to see them give and make change when they knew nothing about it when they came here.”

But outside of jobs and drivers licenses and making proper change, one of the biggest stresses many immigrants and refugees are facing is that feeling of being alone and isolated, even in a big city like Manchester. And so learning simple phrases, even ones like ‘I don’t know, I have to think about it’ does a lot for these students by bringing them out of their lonely isolation and closer together with their communities and their families. Once again Sister Pauline

“They are making themselves understood. I think one of the big joys for them  is when they can help their children who are in kindergarten first grade and they’ll actually open the book and they’ll come back and they’ll say to me, teacher, teacher I show my daughter words, I know, I can read too. You know and they are so thrilled and I think, they want so much for their children to learn that they are learning along with them.  And that’s a motivating factor for them.”

For the Exchange , I’m KS