Raising 6 kids and learning English

Right before the start of the pandemic, a Somali couple, Sara and Abdi, and their six children moved to Seattle.

ESL volunteer and teacher with students smiling at camera in their classroom

When Sara first arrived, she was able to read and write and speak a little English but had almost no computer literacy. Her husband could not read or write in Somali or English. It was clear that Sara wanted to study English, but her life was very full taking care of their six children, ages one to fourteen.

Her priority was her role as a mother and homemaker and it was difficult for her to fit ESL classes into her life.

Her priority was her role as a mother and homemaker and it was difficult for her to fit ESL classes into her life.

Sara and her husband had started coming to class at ReWA shortly before the pandemic started. When English classes went online, Abdi came to pick up homework packets so they could keep studying at home.

Sara was too busy caring for her six children for remote ESL class, but her husband, Abdi, was eager to participate via video chat. He began practicing English with a ReWA volunteer, Linda, once a week and sometimes Sara would join in briefly. 

In May of 2020, Abdi told me that his three kids in Elementary school had not received homework or computers from their school. I talked with one of his older daughters, found out the name of the 5th grade daughter’s teacher and contacted her. I explained that the parents do not use computers or email and asked if I could help by picking up materials or a computer on loan and bringing it to the family. I also shared the family’s address (with permission from Abdi) so they could receive homework. Not long after that, the kids got homework in the mail!

When Seattle Public Schools started official online classes in the Fall, they suddenly had five of their children at home all day, all doing classes on their school-provided laptops. Their apartment was small so they were often all in the same room.

Abdi’s work hours increased, so he stopped his weekly conversation practice sessions with Linda, the ReWA ESL volunteer.

Early in the pandemics, ReWA teachers mailed packets and connected with students by cell phone apps.

While he was at work during the day, Sara was home, trying to keep the younger children busy and assisting the older ones as they struggled with online classes and technology issues.

I kept in touch with her via WhatsApp and video chat. We did some lessons this way and her kids came in and out. Sometimes the connection was bad and we’d get cut off. She said she wanted to do Zoom classes, but needed a laptop.

At the end of February, she got one of ReWA’s laptops on loan. After a short tutorial from ReWA staff, Sara was able to use Zoom on her “new” computer. She quickly learned basic computer literacy skills, as well as Zoom class skills such as how to mute and unmute her audio.

Our first Zoom class at 1pm was chaotic. Sara was trying to answer questions from her children, take care of her youngest, cook and use Zoom all with constant interruptions. I asked her if a later 3pm class would be easier and she said “Yes!”

Not long after that, I started a new class that meets twice a week, from 3- 4pm. Sara’s kids were mostly done with online school for the day, so she made plans for them to be outside.

ReWA received 75 laptops from King County last year to share with adult learners.

It did not happen overnight, but I noticed the day when she was able to get through a full class without interruptions or distractions. She was completely engaged and focused. When there was a pause in the class, she suggested “Exercise!”, which is what students called our daily in-person class activity of following directions. I set aside my planned lesson and we did “exercise” on Zoom. I gave directions, like “Please stand up/sit down”  “Please show me your pencil”  “Please put your hand on your head”, watching the students on my screen and modeling the action if they didn’t understand. There was a lot of laughter!

From that point on, Sara was often the first student to show up for class and was ready to learn. She had paper and pencil ready and held her paper up to the screen so I could see her in-class writing. After class, she took a photo of her paper and sent it to me via WhatsApp.

Even throughout Ramadan, when some students are too tired from fasting to study, Sara continued to show up with enthusiasm and became one of my most consistent, dedicated students. She welcomed new students to our class, always texted if she was going to be late or miss a class and improved her English Speaking and Listening skills.

Sara worked hard to learn the computer skills necessary for Zoom ESL classes. She found a way to care for her children though a pandemic, with quarantine and online school and also prioritize her own education and language acquisition.  She became a leader for other ESL students and she learned how to be a student in a remote classroom. She worked hard to improve her English. When Sara first arrived, her ESL skill level was 1-B, almost a complete beginner. 

Now, after a few months of Zoom classes, she is almost ready to move up to Level 2!

*note: student names have been changed

Refugees connect with “TalkTime”

It’s 5pm on Wednesday and faces start to appear on the computer screen. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased social isolation for almost everyone, so Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA) has moved ESL classes online. Since February 2021, a group of volunteers and ESL teachers have launched a new weekly online conversation circle called “Talk Time”. It gives refugee-students—many of whom are home much of the day—a chance to gather, learn, and be part of a community, albeit online.

As a dozen English-language-learners wave and greet each other, snippets of background conversation can be heard in Somali, Burmese, Arabic, Amharic, along with the occasional gurgle of babies or shouts from toddlers. Most of the attendees are women. Many of them are mothers.

Volunteers Lead Conversation

One TalkTime volunteer facilitator is Subha. She moved back to the US from South Africa after 23 years away and wanted to help others adjust to life in their new country. “One woman in TalkTime said she had never set foot in a classroom in her life. She grew up in Afghanistan under the Taliban. So for her, coming to TalkTime almost makes her giddy.”

Other refugees who come to ReWA never got beyond a few years in school, so adjusting to life in the US has many challenges for them. At ReWA, they are paired with a case manager who speaks their native language to help them access food, housing and ensure their basic needs are met. At the same time, they can also attend English class.

Marie Kjeldgaard is an English teacher at ReWA. “Our students are so motivated. That’s why I love teaching.”

Learning goes both ways

One Talk Time attendee explained about the education system in her home country. “Where I come from in Eritrea, you don’t start school until you are 10 years old and then you only go for 3-4 years. Here in the US you can learn anytime.” Another student left school at age 11, and now was taking ownership of her own learning and took pride in something as simple as having her own notebook to write in.

ReWA’s ESL Coordinator, Yuliya Matyushkina explained that TalkTime differs from online class time because it’s informal. Sessions are 60 minutes twice a week and hosted by 2-3 volunteers who are provided with a list of topics and vocabulary words to use to stimulate conversation.

Yuliya added, “Also, since we never know who will show up to TalkTime, or what their English level will be, an ESL teacher is there to kick-off the session with an icebreaker question, like ‘Did you go outside today?’ This way, the teacher can quickly assess the students’ language levels and then assign them to break-out groups for the rest of the hour.” With the click of the button in Zoom, the attendees are distributed into small groups led by a facilitator, which makes conversation easier.

Amanda, a volunteer facilitator, said she is impressed by the students’ sense of responsibility. “Just learning how to read a bus schedule or how to make change [in coins]—these things take a lot of grit and determination. But once learned, they help one become independent. That is what is so rewarding about volunteering with TalkTime.”

[box] If you want to volunteer for TalkTime, email yuliya@rewa.org or visit: rewa.org/volunteer [/box]

Volunteer Appreciation

Vacuuming children. Is that a mistake in English vocabulary or a practical solution to messy kids?

Angela is a stay-at home mom of three, metal artist (pictured here in her workshop). She has been volunteering as a teacher’s aide at ReWA for eight years. When asked for an anecdote from the classroom, she recalled this line.

“We were discussing New Year’s resolutions and one student said he ‘was resolved to vacuum his children.’ We all cracked up–it wasn’t the right word exactly, but we understood—especially the parents among us.”

Angela said she used to volunteer at a film festival, but I decided, “”If I’m going to invest my time, I should spend it on something more meaningful to me.” When the covid-19 pandemic cancelled ReWA’s in-person ESL classes last spring, several volunteers stepped up to contact students weekly for conversation practice.

Another ESL volunteer, Annie, is a theater wardrobe coordinator who also wanted to get involved in the community. She started with ReWA in 2019 and has been calling six to eight students each week for conversation practice and homework help.

“Some are also studying for the citizenship exam and learning about the structure of the U.S. Congress. When the insurrection happened in January, we had talked about how history is still impacting current events. For students from countries with a history of colonialism, they understand this very well.”

She said some students are also curious about indigenous people in America, so she did some research and shared the Native Land App which helps people learn about local history by identifying the indigenous groups living in the area.

Both volunteers agree: they miss the classroom interactions. But these one-on-one conversations allow them to get to know the students better.

During the pandemic, ReWA ESL teachers have used zoom classrooms, phone apps and calls to stay connected with students.

Angela said, “One student from the Central African Republic used to be very shy in class and rarely spoke. But now we talk on the phone every week and she is becoming more comfortable trying out new English words.”

Many of ReWA’s ESL students arrived as refugees, fleeing violence. Some have lost family and friends, so even simple questions about their families and where they come from can bring painful memories to the surface. Angela said she has learned to ask more general questions and go from there. She said she admires these incredibly resilient people and their desire to learn and work hard to support their families.

Annie said, “Volunteering with ReWA this past year gave me a real measure of connection and I’m really grateful for that.”

Angela recalled a poignant moment in the conversation about New Year’s resolutions, “One student said, ‘This year I want to have a home.’” She sighed. “Thinking back, it has been a difficult year, but for me, it has also been very rewarding.”

[box] To learn more about volunteering with ReWA, visit our Volunteer page. [/box]

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.

[box] 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 [/box]