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Our Favorite Day of the Week: ESL Mondays

July 16, 2014

Connie during an ESL tutoring session.

Eli and Emma co-tutored Maria and Connie, two members of Pomona’s Housekeeping Staff, throughout the 2013-2014 academic year as volunteers for the Pomona ESL (English as a Second Language) Tutoring Program.

We’ve met with Connie and Maria on Monday afternoons throughout the year. When we first started co-tutoring ESL, we arrived to class each day a little nervous. We worried about being good teachers and about being able to identify and support Connie and Maria’s goals for tutoring. We worried about the dynamic between two white Pomona students with class privilege working with Mexican immigrant housekeeping staff at the college. How would we establish a pedagogical and relational dynamic that held space for those differences, wasn’t defined by them, but also didn’t ignore them? We were all nervous, for different reasons. Connie was initially very shy, and Maria less so, but neither was confident with their English. Both were constantly apologetic about mistakes. We weren’t quite sure how to teach.

We compensated by laughing together. Every Monday at 4 PM, there would be many giggles – at first it was over small, goofy things. Soon the giggles gave way to trust, and understanding. With expanded confidence in English and the interest and confidence of one another, the stories became more detailed and more personal. We all shared pieces of our feelings or histories that we never expected we would. We listened, often in amazement, to the experiences of these resilient and inspiring women. Each week we would also do verb tense, vocabulary or reading activities. One week we read the biographies of César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. Maria told us about how her father had known Chávez and worked during the times of the protests, and we also wondered together why Chávez’ biography didn’t even mention Dolores Huerta. Every session, we left plenty of time before and after to laugh and chat. Each week’s hour passed faster than before, and we often went many minutes over our time allotted.

As graduation approached, the impending final session of ESL felt more bittersweet than our final classes– and it was one of the farewells we most wanted to postpone. Sweet because we had gotten to know Connie and Maria, and sweet because we had discovered the joy in teaching. Bitter that we would not be able to continue with these same students, and because we would greatly miss our sessions. It is a genuine regret that we did not start the ESL Tutoring Program earlier, to have had much more time with it.

We dissected the word “bittersweet” together during one of our sessions. We encountered it first through the lyrics of the song “Someone Like You” by Adele – a song that seems to be everywhere and that we all had heard before, but none of us had ever fully read the lyrics. Sitting together in the Alexander Hall boardroom, where we would have our lessons, we watched the video for the song and then read over every line. We talked about the song’s message. We defined new vocabulary and compared the song’s angle to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” which we had listened to and analyzed the session prior—Maria had mentioned hearing it on the radio periodically and liking it. Somehow, despite all the laughter our sessions, we listened to the saddest songs. We talked about love, what kinds of love the singers are talking about, and how they applied to our own lives, always learning from each other in the process.

It is a gift to teach a language, because speaking in something other than our mother tongue makes us weak and vulnerable, and the fact that someone is willing to push themself in that way is special. It took us some time for the “teachers” and “students” in that room to truly allow ourselves to relax in one another’s presence. In that space we all learned in deeper ways than we had before. We learned about Connie and Maria’s lives as mothers and grandmothers, about their childhoods, their families, about their daily work as housekeepers. Monday became our favorite day of the week. We’ve covered every topic we could think of, but still always had more to talk about. We’ve ranged from conversations on religion, marriage, abortion, telephone surveillance, Justin Bieber, ear infections, cooking and recipes, the pros and cons of cheese, the places where we grew up, salaries and unions – we could go on.

During our final sessions of ESL tutoring, we asked both women to evaluate their progress. They beamed while expressing how much more comfortable they felt with their English compared to when we started tutoring in November. They even shared recent success stories of interactions they had with friends and strangers in English, wherein their command of the language surprised and delighted them. Both intend to continue ESL in the coming years to push themselves even further – their one request was to have teachers who motivated them and created a comfortable learning environment in the way they felt we had. Needless to say, to receive this compliment touched us deeply. We also hope to continue teaching ESL after Pomona, and we hope to have students like Connie and Maria; their willingness to try out different exercises and to take on challenges made our “job” very easy.

As very recent graduates, we hope that the account of our experience and the joy that we have gotten from this opportunity persuades more students to join in and keep this amazing program running. We need students of all years to start tutoring! Our time on Mondays became one of the most important, funny, and resonating parts of our year. Thank you Maria, Connie, and the Draper Center.

-Emma and Eli 

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