In 2005 I was hired by a non-profit in San Mateo County to design and teach classes in a combined English as a Second Language and Family Literacy program in the community room of a low-income housing development. The development was run by a different non-profit, and yet another non-profit ran an on-site childcare facility. Thanks to the partnership of these organizations, our adult ESL classes met two nights a week for two hours, while licensed caretakers watched over the children of many of my students, reading them stories. The program lasted for two years, until San Mateo County cut its funding.
Each class had fifteen to twenty adults, roughly a third of whom brought children to childcare. Some of the students lived in the housing complex. Originally the class was nearly all Spanish-speakers, but when some Yemeni residents living in the complex heard about it, they began coming too. It was difficult because it was a mixed-level group combining students with different levels of proficiency in English, but I was able to recruit students from nearby college ESL Teaching programs who needed volunteer hours to do one-on-one tutoring with some of the pre-literate beginners. Also, some of the most proficient students were so eager to just practice their English that I was able to match them with beginners. While awkward at first, we soon had what in the education field is idealized as a “community of learners.”
Since there was a mild cultural clash not only between ethnic groups but also for some of the newer immigrants to the U.S. – the students’ need for cultural awareness drove some of the curriculum. Lesson plan topics increasingly dealt with different ethnicities residing in that area, and the countries of origin of the students. We learned about conditions in Yemen and about the various Latin American countries the other students came from. Some of the Yemeni students began bringing friends who were refugees from violence-torn places like Palestine and Iraq. We learned much more than we had from the news about life in these far-off parts of the world, myself included.
Almost spontaneously, we began having potlucks every other month. The children participated, and we held group story readings. The local public library donated children’s books, and we designed interactive craft activities that parents and kids could work on together. I was initially worried, because I knew most of the Yemenis were practicing Muslims and had food restrictions and preferences different from those of the other students. For their part, the Latinos were apprehensive about trying food they were unfamiliar with. So once again, one the eve of the first potluck, different cuisines became the topic of lesson plans. And without having to say so, the students from Mexico knew not to bring tamales made with pork. And miraculously, almost on some unstated cue, the Yemenis put English labels on their dishes to identify what kind of meat they were cooked with (for example “LAMB”). Everyone put a lot of effort into their dishes, all of which were homemade. Everything was delicious.
Towards the end, when we knew the funding was cut and our last class was a couple months away, we became sad that our twice-weekly community would soon come to a close. Yet I had noticed that some of the moms had been meeting independent of the classes and even some of their kids were bonding too, within and between the distinct ethnic groups.
One day, a Mexican woman appeared in class wearing a full-length Yemeni dress, headscarf and all. All her Latino friends and classmates snickered in an obviously nervous way that showed that they were simply unprepared to make sense of it. The woman was not fazed in the least, and glowed with a sense of insight that is beyond words. She sat next to her Yemeni friend as though they were sisters, which I guess in some way they were. The Yemeni woman also radiated respect and pride for her friend’s courage. By the end of that class, the Mexican woman commanded the respect of everyone in the room. Her experiment in literally “walking a mile in another’s shoes,” with the slight adjustment of switching shoes for a dress and headscarf, even inspired the interest of her Latino friends who at the end of class ran their hands across the dress fabric in admiration.
That was not only the best single class I ever taught; the whole two years that I directed the program was the most rewarding educational experience in my life. Looking back, I imagine myself as the conductor of a vast symphony, with the students being musicians of varying degrees of skill. My task was to facilitate the shared experience of everyone pushing each other up, higher and higher, toward their potential, while the whole ensemble achieved a sense of collective harmony. In that regard, we all succeeded.