On the Saturday of my ESOL training (English for Speakers of Other Languages) with the Boston Cares Corps, I arrived at a community center in Dorchester with forty volunteers of all ages and from all backgrounds. We spent the morning in small groups, some focused on English classes, and others on technology for youth programs. During lunch, we all reconvened, and got to chat with each other over pizza and salad. At my table were an aerospace engineer, a retired English teacher, an artist, a lawyer, a mechanical engineer, and a college student. After lunch, we split into interest groups. Eighteeen of us found seats in the ESOL classroom, and flipped through our handouts of information and resources. Then the facilitator stood up and started waving a banana in the air.
Welcome to shock teaching, an immersive lesson in what it's like to learn English if you do not speak another language with the same root or alphabet, or if you are not literate in your native language. We began to repeat the word for banana over and over, without knowing which language we were speaking, and then the words for book, and eyeglasses, and pen. And then the question that we figured out, "yo ke ho (what is this)?" And the answer, "this is a banana." Sing song, over and over again. We were shown the written words: केरा Banana. किताव Book. चश्मा Eyeglasses. कलम Pen. After we repeated dozens of times, we were asked to write each of the words, and then to repeat by reading the written words, without the visual cues. In 45 minutes, we'd managed to learn four words (I can't remember any of them now), and one really useful question. In Nepali, as we found out. Under the leadership of our very good facilitator from English for New Bostonians, our group spent quite a bit of time discussing how the experience made us feel: frustrated, excited, confused, helpless, hopeful, determined. In our roles as ESOL conversation group and class assistants, we would be working with students who felt exactly the way we did. We also spent some time on the subject of culture, and for those of us who would work with conversation groups, how to respond to comments or questions that in our culture people might consider difficult or inappropriate.
It was a great introduction to the new-to-me world of ESOL. Excited and ready to test myself in this arena, I signed up to work with Project Hope, an agency that provides low-income mothers access to education, jobs, housing, and emergency services. While I waited for yet another CORI background check to be completed, I tossed one more ball in the air and sent an email to a program with which I'd volunteered more than twenty years ago.