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Access to learning soars as ESL goes online

Last March, ReWA’s ESL Team was struggling: few of the immigrants and refugees who attended ESL classes had internet or computer access at home.

Now, a year later, ReWA is offering five classes online serving over 70 students.

How did we do it? Let’s go back to March 13, 2020, the day Seattle Schools closed…

My name is Inga Muscio, I’m an English teacher at ReWA. Our students were suddenly out of the classroom, and we had to figure out how to help them keep up with the normalcy and ritual of our weekly classes. For many of our students, ESL classes are their primary opportunity to experience life in their new country in a safe, supportive atmosphere. In class, they have no need to be embarrassed or ashamed that they cannot communicate as well as they would like.

Having no frame of reference, much less any idea when we’d be able to get everyone back in the classroom, the ReWA ESL team rose to the challenge of this pandemic with ingenuity, compassion and resourcefulness.

We started off by immediately sending our students huge homework packets that could keep them learning for a few weeks as we transitioned to online classes. We weren’t sure how we’d do it, but we had to let them know that this was one part of their lives would hold steady, no matter what.

For our intermediate students, teachers kept in touch with phone calls and texts during those first few weeks, while we cobbled together a plan for the long term.

Our beginning level students, however, were in danger of slipping away from us. Lisa is a Level 1 English teacher at ReWA. She quickly discovered that many of her students were already using web-based chat apps like Viber and WhatsApp to communicate with family and friends near and far. So she downloaded the apps and was immediately successful reaching students who may have gone by the wayside.

The ESL team had started to meet weekly to share ideas on how to keep students engaged with remote learning and soon all the teachers were using the apps.

ReWA ESL teachers met weekly to share lessons-learned on keeping students connected during the pandemic.

After six months of online classes we took stock of our student population discovered something wonderful had happened: instead of losing students when in-person classes were cancelled, we found that many more were able to attend classes now because we offered online learning.

Marie, our evening English teacher, was the first to notice. Almost all of her students hold down full time-jobs. Pre-covid, they showed up to class tired to the bone. But when classes moved online, these students were able to get off work and log on when they got home with their families. Word spread and Marie’s evening class size doubled.

In addition, some students who had moved geographically further away from ReWA could still participate in English classes online. Class sizes were increasing for all of our teachers. Almost a year in, our classes are all filled to capacity.

stack of laptops

ReWA distributed 60 laptops to adult learners so they can learn computer literacy and stay connected to online ESL classes.

New possibilities have also arisen. One ReWA ESL teacher had a student who needed surgery. He was quite frightened, especially about being put under anesthesia. His teacher tried to assuage his fears, to no avail. Then she thought of two friends who are anesthesiologists. She set up a Zoom meeting for all of them to speak together.  The anesthesiologists had the knowledge and expertise to answer all of the student’s questions, and more importantly, to calm fears.

We now know that when things finally do get back to normal, online learning will continue to be an important part of our ESL program. Also, with funding from King County’s “Digital Equity for Adults with Barriers to Access and Services” program, ReWA distributed 60 laptops to our students, and with that, one of the major learning barriers has been lifted. While we all miss our students and love teaching in person, we certainly cannot ignore the many people we are now able to serve online.

In February 2021 ReWA launched “Talk Time”, a twice-weekly, volunteer-led, online conversation group to help immigrants and refugees practice English conversation skills, discuss current events, and make social connections. If you are a ReWA client and would like to join the conversation group, email Yuliya@rewa.org. If you want to learn how to volunteer with ReWA, email emma@rewa.org