Teaching ELL for Mutual Learning

Author Blake Collins
Author Blake Collins

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10b; NIV)

The gospel reveals to us a Christ who is radical not only in who he approaches, but also – perhaps even more importantly – how he approached them. The most marginalized, the most unpopular, the most undesirable, the lowest of the low by societal standards, were all treated by Christ with great love and respect, possibly as they had never before experienced. Yes, our Lord is indeed radical. From Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well to the reprimanding of religious leaders, I believe it’s fair to say that Jesus was just as invested in the process of education as he was the result.

This reality presents both an encouragement and a challenge to the North American church. We are called to live in a society that keeps no secrets about who the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ are. The United States has an ever-increasing wealth gap that echoes Christ’s enigmatic words, “For whoever has will be given more… Whoever does not have, even what they do have will be taken from them.” (Is Jesus describing the way things will be in the Kingdom? Or, as Ched Meyers, Eric DeBode, Rick Ufford-Chase, and others might suggest, is he describing the way things are right now?) I believe that a healthy question for the North American church to be asking is: How can we love one another and share the good news in our context, with our missions, our resources, and our activities as responsibly as possible?

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I believe it’s fair to say that Jesus was just as invested in the process of education as he was the result.
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I served last year as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) in Lima, Peru. During that year, my fellow YAVs and I worked with the Peru Joining Hands Network to address root causes of poverty in order to promote reconciliation in a country where, like my own, it is desperately needed. One of the most pivotal lessons I learned as a YAV was that, in order to fully live out the gospel, we must advocate and seek justice on all levels; locally, nationally, and globally. To paraphrase mission co-worker Jed Koball, we can give a fish when needed, we can teach a person to fish when needed, but what do we do when the fish are polluted in a pond contaminated from a mine? And to take it even a step farther, how do we know if the people with whom we are partnering even like fish in the first place?!

Blake Collins Peru
Photo Credit: Blake Collins

Before going to Peru, I believed myself to be semi-fluent in Spanish, one of Peru’s three official languages. I was mistaken. The obstacle of language was one that remained with me through my entire year of service. The vulnerability that comes with not being able to defend myself when accused of not paying on public transportation, or being embarrassed after continually mispronouncing a word after months of attempting, or watching one by one as individuals in a crowd fall asleep during my speech because (bless them) they just couldn’t understand my accent – these are moments that will never leave me.

Although at the time it was frustrating, scary, and discouraging, I am so grateful as an Anglo-North American Christian male to have had the experience of being this vulnerable. It’s a level of vulnerability that would be so rare and difficult for me to experience in my home context. And I must remind myself that I was facing a language barrier in the context of an incredibly supportive community cheering me on and supporting me with unbelievable patience, day-in and day-out. Suffice it to say that it’s pretty uncommon to find such a community for those learning English in North American society.

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I was facing a language barrier in an incredibly supportive community. Suffice it to say that it’s pretty uncommon to find such a community for those learning English in North American society.
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After returning home from Peru, I moved to Louisville, KY, to work as a Mission Engagement Specialist for the YAV program. I started attending Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church, and listening to a Minute-for-Mission one Sunday I was delighted to learn about and be invited to participate in Crescent Hill’s English Language Leaner’s (ELL) class held every Monday and Wednesday evening. What an essential and needed way to be involved in the community, and to ‘teach a person how to fish’ as the saying goes.

English Book - Public DomainEach class begins with a pot-luck meal prepared by volunteers, followed by an hour-long teaching session. This allows class participants who work until evening to come straight to class rather than worrying about how to feed themselves – and often their children. Crescent Hill purchases workbooks and allows class participants to take home the activity section to complete assignments and further study. It is a wonderful ministry that is very much needed and appreciated in the community! For me personally, transitioning to a new city after a year of international service, the ELL class has been a fantastic way to continue to act and reflect upon my own YAV year. It helps me find and create community and partnership with my sisters and brothers, both in the church and surrounding area.

Because I’ve had my own experience of insufficient language skills in another country, I believe deeply that far more important than the result of learning words, vocabulary, and phrases is the way we choose to take part in the process. Many schools and community centers offer free or low-cost ELL courses. Is a class different when taught at a church? Should it be? What can we as the church do to ensure that we are both teaching and loving class participants in a way consistent with the gospel? How can we bring our knowledge of and love for Christ into each lesson? How can we approach this course with the commandment to “love our neighbors as ourselves” in mind?

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Many schools and community centers offer free or low-cost ELL courses. Is a class different when taught at a church? Should it be?
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In my experience, it all begins with how we define the purpose of our work. Are we there just to teach the English language? Possibly. Are we there to ensure that those in the class learn English as quickly and efficiently as possible? Are these good and adequate motivations? Are all of our motives coming from a place of love? Is it possible that, even if we answer each of these questions with an adamant “yes!”, we might still be falling short of loving our neighbors as ourselves? Tough questions. Necessary questions.

Photo Credit: Denise Krebs - http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrsdkrebs/8031569639/
Photo Credit: Denise Krebs – http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrsdkrebs/8031569639/

The gospel of Christ is many things to many different people, as it should be! It is so very rich. For me, the gospel is a call to advocate for a community where all are welcomed, loved, and nourished. In an ELL class at Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church, this translates into not only teaching language, but also learning! It means making our purpose learning about and being in community with our neighbors as much as teaching English. It means seeking to fully understand the difficulty in pronouncing sounds and syllables not native to our tongues, like we ask our class participants to do each week!

It means not being timid to repeat a word that is difficult to pronounce over and over and over again, just like our participants. It means compassionately asking and hearing about participants’ daily struggles of being judged, ridiculed, and mistreated due to a language barrier. It means going in each time saying, “My primary goal is to love my neighbor – my neighbor the English teacher, my neighbor the class participant, my neighbor who is preparing dinner, my neighbor who volunteers to clean dishes after the meal, my neighbor the pastor of the church, my neighbor the director of the ELL program. I will love my neighbor as myself, and I will do that through teaching English.”

Easier said than done, right? And I fail! Believe me, I fail every Wednesday evening! As do many of us in the church. It’s ok; we can own that. And we can strive each class to do a little better in creating a setting of partnership in which the learning process can take place, in replacing the traditional (and sometimes less-than-loving, even if well-intentioned) hierarchy of teacher-student relationships with this partnership model. We don’t need to be afraid of the classes where we come out feeling like we learned more than we taught; this is partnership! This is more than education for information; this is education for transformation

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Because I’ve had my own experience of insufficient language skills in another country, I believe deeply that far more important than the result of learning words, vocabulary, and phrases is the way we choose to take part in the process.
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I don’t mean to neglect the primary purpose of ELL classes: to teach English to those who are less proficient so that language is no longer a barrier but can be used as a tool to improve participants’ quality of life. And what a holy and necessary initiative!

afrik crossHowever, even if we teach English in the most efficient way possible, even if every participants’ language skills improve quickly and significantly, but we do so without love, are we doing it “right?” If our class participants feel unloved, or unwelcome, or like second-class citizens in our country’s unwelcoming, impatient, and entitled culture – are we really doing what is good? Are we seeking justice? Are we entering the partnership, community, and fellowship to which Christ calls us? Are we being the church?

If our initial response is “no,” or “maybe,” or “probably not,” then let us repent, knowing that forgiveness is waiting for us. Let us seek grace from those we have not loved as ourselves – and let us seek the grace to keep on trying. Let us act as the people of the One who came to break down barriers, to promote justice, and to teach us to love one another as we are loved by our God. For Christ came not only that we may have life to the fullest, but see that our lives are only truly abundant when that abundance is accessible to all.

And may it be so!

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AUTHOR BIO: Blake Collins was born and raised in Columbia, MD, and is a member at First Presbyterian Church of Howard County. He attended Temple University in Philadelphia, PA, for both undergrad and grad school. He served as a YAV in Lima, Peru from 2013 to 2014, helping to partner the PC(USA) Joining Hands Network with the Evangelical Church of Peru (IEP). Currently a Mission Engagement Specialist for the Young Adult Volunteer program, he is charged with raising funds and spreading awareness of this life-changing program!


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