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English classes build community bridges

November 21, 2013

by Olena Sadovnik

Ghalia Aissou reads out loud her essay about Titanic Credit: Olena Sadovnik

Ghalia Aissou reads out loud her essay about Titanic
Credit: Olena Sadovnik

The morning sun streamed into a spacious studying room, filled with about 20 students and a teacher.  A lively and animated discussion was taking place, blended around the names of internationally renowned film directors’ such as: Martin Scorsese, Kim Ki-duk and Stanley Kubrick. But this was not a cinematography club, it was a class of English for speakers of other languages.

For the third year in a row, the Pine Hills branch of the Albany Public Library offers ESL classes, sponsored by the Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
“By offering English classes for non-native speakers at the library, we see ourselves as a bridge from the community to a school system. We offer space to a school system, namely BOCES, so they can offer ESL classes to adult learners,” said Christine Havens, a library assistant.
The concept behind opening English classes for non-native speakers at the library goes back several years ago when ESL classes were taught in the nearby Pine Hills Elementary School. Shortly after, the staff at the school reached out to the program administrators in the interest of serving the needs of the parents and families of the elementary students, said Bill DeVoe, communications specialist for BOCES Career and Technical School.
According to the latest available data, 155 people moved to the Pine Hills neighborhood from abroad in 2010, said Joanna King, a senior planner at the Capital District Regional Commission. Despite the overall moderate numbers of newcomers, a demand for ESL classes has increased.“Our overall enrollment in all of our ESL classes has nearly doubled over the last four years,” said DeVoe. ESL classes are free to students age 21 years and older. To enroll in a class, prospective students have to take a placement test. There are eight levels of English, from level 1 for students with no or very little English, through level 8, after which students can continue on with their college classes.

Taxi Driver and Shining are Amin Bozorgiyan’s favorite movies. Credit: Olena Sadovnik

Taxi Driver and Shining are Amin Bozorgiyan’s favorite movies.
Credit: Olena Sadovnik

Currently there are 25 locations in the Capital Region for learning English as a second language, according to the Office for New Americans. Information about the location of ESL classes is available on the ONA website and through other organizations assisting immigrants.

The Pine Hills branch offers classes for intermediate learners, who are at levels 4 through 6, on Monday and Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to noon, and from noon to 2 p.m. There are 20 students in the morning class and 10 in the early afternoon class this semester.
“The idea behind these classes is to improve students’ reading, writing and speaking skills. We pay a lot of attention to language dictionary skills,” said ESL teacher Mary Curry. “I teach them how to build words. We also focus on grammar. They touch on topics of immigration and holidays.” Students are also required to watch American news daily for this class. Most of the local ESL learners are professional people in their home countries. So, as a result, accountants, teachers, journalists, lawyers, doctors and others work together on the advancement of their language skills.
“When I came to the United States last year, reading was the most challenging for me. I could read, but I couldn’t pronounce words the same way as Americans. I’ve noticed that sometimes it’s difficult to get my message across,” said Ghalia Aissou, who is from Algeria. She is native of Berber, fluent in Arabic and French. Aissou also tirelessly learns English outside the classroom at any occasion: at the shop, at the doctor, everywhere she can hear people talking.“When you start learning a new language, you learn it as a baby, from zero. It doesn’t matter if you have a degree or good education at home,” said Aissou. She likes her ESL class a lot and feels as though the teacher often goes the extra mile to help students master English and understand American culture.Starting to learn the language from scratch is new for Amin Bozorgiyan, who worked as the youngest editor-in-chief at the GolesTan newspaper in Iran.  He was a master of the pen in Persian. But one month after its opening in 2001, the newspaper was closed because of its objective coverage of the government’s social policies. As a consequence, Bozorgiyan was imprisoned for four months for his work on women’s rights. After his release from prison, he was notified that if he ever again wrote critical articles on social problems he would be imprisoned for five years. This meant the end of Bozorgiyan’s editorial career. Since 2002 he has not been employed in Iran. He worked as a freelance journalist, writing for the BBC and Voice of America.

In 2010, following the 2009 unrest against the Iranian government, Bozorgiyan received asylum in France with the help of the organization Reporters Without Borders.

Now the former he looks forward to pursuing his degree in sociology in the United States. Bozorgiyan came to New York’s capital city in July because of his friend, who studies at the University of Albany and recommended it to him.

“With the degree in sociology I hope to start a new life,” Bozorgiyan said.

Most of Bozorgian’s classmates also plan to apply to a university. The admissions offices at universities require foreign language speakers to pass the test of English as a foreign language, also known as TOEFL.

“We do not prepare for TOEFL directly. These students are getting better, but they are not ready for TOEFL yet,” said Curry. TOEFL is a complex test, which measures listening, reading, speaking and writing.

Patrick Belibi, a Fulbright scholar from Cameroon, who majors in English language teaching at the University of Albany, has experience in both: taking the TOEFL test and preparing students for it.  Prior to coming to the United States last year, Belibi worked as an ESL teacher in Cameroon, where he prepared students to take the TOEFL at the ISEIG Yaounde private English school for four years.

“Preparing students for TOEFL exam is very different from English teaching. When you teach at the regular English class, you set a pattern and pupils follow it, but qualifying students for the exam requires a teacher to adapt to students’ knowledge, fill their gaps and teach them techniques to succeed,” said Belibi. “TOEFL exam follows a certain template, students need to practice a lot before taking it, to gain better understanding of its structure and requirements.”

On Friday,  Belibi is going to be on the other side of the fence, he takes the TOEFL test as a requirement for his PhD application. He is confident about it and hopes he can score the highest, which will make him a competitive candidate. Meanwhile, current ESL students at the Pine Hills branch have several means to advance their listening and understanding skills needed for TOEFL. A lot of audio and video materials are available for borrowing at the library.

Christine Havens tells about available materials at the ESL corner in the library. Credit: Olena Sadovnik

Christine Havens tells about available materials at the ESL corner in the library.
Credit: Olena Sadovnik

“Since English classes started in the library, the ESL corner became more in demand. The teacher often recommends to the learners that they check out DVDs. So, they can listen and see at the same time. Students also check out a lot of children’s books, where they have controlled vocabulary. So, early English learners practice with children’s books,” the librarian Havens said.

In the neighborhood ESL classes are also offered at the Refugee and Immigrants Support Services of Emmaus. RISSE at 715 Morris St., is a family-based center supporting newcomers in building sustainable lives in the U.S.

For Christine Havens, it’s exciting to have English learners at the library. “We are glad to have them and we are thrilled to death to have English classes here.”

For more information about ESL classes offered at Pine Hills branch and registration call 518-862-4707. -30-


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