MAKING CHANGE: CIVICS AS A SECOND LANGUAGE
The new ESL teaches immigrants how to stand up for themselves.
City Limits Monthly
When Bella Yakubovich and Alexandra Sviridova came to a City Council hearing a
few weeks ago, they did not have on smart jackets or expensive lipstick like
most of the women officials in the room. The two elderly immigrants from the
former Soviet Union wore sensible skirts and sensible sweaters. They were there
to defend English classes at senior centers against impending budget cuts, and
as they took turns at the microphone, each first eyed it for a moment, as though
collecting time to make their language sensible, too.
“We want to tell a doctor about our problems,” 71-year-old Yakubovich explained,
trying to make the audience understand the value of her English class. “We want
to go to the movie theater. Watch TV. To understand.”
“We would like to meet and speak with neighbors,” added Sviridova. “We have to
know history and culture of country where we live. We ask you: Help us become
The listeners were rapt.
Yakubovich’s and Sviridova’s English is not perfect. But a growing breed of ESL
educators are teaching immigrants like them that spotty language skills needn’t
keep them from talking at hearings and otherwise acting like citizens--even if
they haven’t been naturalized, and even if they have no papers at all. The new
teaching approach, often called “English Literacy-Civics” education (EL-Civics
for short), is spreading through heavily immigrant U.S. cities on the strength
of $70 million dollars a year in federal literacy funding that Congress first
allocated in 2001. Annually, New York State gets over $10 million, with most of
it going to New York City. For literacy educators, the new resources are a
welcome replacement for earlier federal money, which got pegged to job-seeking
rather than to citizenship-building efforts during the late 1990s zeitgiest of
As the name implies, EL-Civics combines language and civics training in one
class. Many ESL instructors are still old school: they still give students
fill-in-the-blank exercises with irregular verbs, have them memorize the three
branches of government and teach them how to balance a checkbook. But for an
increasing number, says Ira Yankwitt, director of adult literacy services at the
New York City-based Literacy Assistance Center, language teaching is no longer
solely dependent on textbooks. Nor is civics just “about field trips to the bank
or City Hall,” he says. “It’s about critiquing the banking system.”
Carolyn Grimaldi is an instructor at the Center for Immigrant Education and
Training at LaGuardia Community College. A few weeks ago, she started teaching a
group of rank beginners. On a recent afternoon, she wrote “New York City” on the
blackboard and, under that, two columns labeled “Positive” and “Negative.” Under
“Positive,” the class of some 25 mostly Latin Americans enthusiastically
produced fillers. “Good hospitals,” said a gray-haired man from Colombia. “Good
universities,” another student added. “Many cultures! Different foods!” offered
another, which led to a list of culinary nationalities that in New York could
just as easily represent people: “Chinese.” “Brazilian!”
Under “Negative,” the students contributed: “Too expensive.” “The weather no
good--very cold.” “It’s dangerous some place.” Grimaldi gently corrected--”Some
places are dangerous”--and the student who’d made the error echoed her without
seeming chastised. “Here is much cockroaches,” said one woman, and now
several others jumped in as teachers: “A lot of cockroaches!” In the end, no one
had opened a textbook, but the class had used dozens of new words and several
Then Grimaldi wrote their phrases on a “Problems: Solutions” chart, beginning
with, “New York is too expensive.”
“What’s the solution?” she asked.
“Do you want to move?”
“No!” the students yelled, and the class rang with new suggestions: “Buy from
99-cent stores! Shop at Costco!”
The exercise is about far more than learning English. Grimaldi says her students
are “getting used to the idea of posing problems and identifying solutions.”
Later, she will guide them in articulating and analyzing an issue--perhaps the
fact that their communities suffer disproportionately from health problems like
diabetes and asthma. After choosing the problem, EL-Civics students often learn
to do internet research to identify social service agencies and local
politicians who can help with solutions.
With the teacher’s assistance, they may act as playwrights, inventing dialogues
between an immigrant and an indifferent bureaucrat, says Hillary Gardner, who
teaches advanced-level EL-Civics at LaGuardia. A cranky official may warm to an
immigrant who knows how to say, “Have a nice day,” “Good morning” or “Thank you”
with the cheerful inflection that native speakers use to sway reluctant public
servants. “I have students keep a journal to record conversations they’ve had in
English,” Gardner says. “I want them to get out, listen and think about what
makes a good interaction.” Producing their own vocabulary and grammar for these
efforts, they tend to remember far more than they would from a textbook. They
gain knowledge of how things in their new country and city work, knowledge they
may pass to families and friends. They develop a voice, both private and civic.
They take control of their new lives.
Students swear by the new pedagogy. “My personal problem is losing my nervous
for talk,” says Nelly Diaz, who was a nurse in Ecuador before immigrating to New
York City. “We learn about everything here,” adds Lina Villarejo, a 19-year-old
Colombian who hopes to be a U.S. journalist. “English in the street, in the
newspaper. Life in the United States.… I like this method. You feel motivation.
You feel happy.”
In New York City, Grimaldi, Gardner and other EL-Civics teachers have learned
their new pedagogy in seminars developed recently by the Literacy Action
Center--better known as the LAC. The LAC is currently helping some 60,000 New
York City adults improve their English. Many speak it as their first language
but struggle with reading and writing. Others are immigrants grappling with a
brand new tongue. For about 15 years, according to LAC’s adult literacy services
coordinator, Winston Lawrence, his organization and other groups have been
incorporating the notion of “participatory literacy” into their work.
The concept originated with Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, author of the
worldwide bestseller Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Part Marxist and part Christian
mystic, Freire--who died in 1997--felt that traditional education reinforces
elite power over poor people. It does this, he believed, by setting teachers up
as authorities who “deposit” knowledge into empty-minded students, much as
investors deposit money in a bank. If they get any education at all, poor people
emerge from this teaching identifying with elites. Or they accept their
oppression, feeling too ignorant and passive to challenge it.
As a remedy, Freire proposed a teaching method that recognizes that poor
students bring a wealth of knowledge and wisdom to class. The trick is to
articulate and apply it. Freire believed that teachers should help students name
their problems, redefine them as collective rather than personal, figure out the
causes and work together on solutions. According to this thinking, literacy
skills are not dry lessons from textbooks. They develop as people labor in
groups to improve their communities. They flow from civic life.
LAC’s Lawrence says that “participatory literacy” theory was first practiced a
generation ago in developing regions such as the Caribbean, Africa and Mexico.
By the early 1990s, it was being spread to the United States by people like
Klaudia Rivera. Today Rivera is an education professor at Long Island
University’s Brooklyn Campus; back then she directed the El Barrio Popular
Education Program, in East Harlem.
Students at El Barrio were mostly Puerto Rican and Dominican women; many had
been laid off from garment industry jobs and faced ongoing cuts in their
unemployment and welfare benefits. As children, many had been too poor to go to
school. At El Barrio, they improved their literacy in both Spanish and English.
They told and wrote stories about their lives. They used computers and
audiovisual technology to investigate community problems like irregular trash
collection and dilapidated housing. They visited the Upper East Side to ask
affluent whites what they thought of Latino immigrants (most said immigrants
were good for the city). They made videos about their research that were aired
on community-access television and by other activist groups.
The program and others like it ended, Rivera says, when the welfare reform act
of 1996 tied funding for literacy and ESL to the requirement that students find
jobs. “They had to spend their time doing resumes and training for interviews,”
she remembers. But now, with the new infusion of EL-Civics money, “there’s an
opportunity to play” again with participatory literacy concepts.
The results are visible citywide. At Brooklyn College, 400 students in the Adult
Literacy Program wrote letters to Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton,
protesting proposed cuts to their program. In Washington Heights, Northern
Manhattan Improvement Corporation teacher John Lyons’ EL-Civics students
researched housing problems. Some students ended up circulating petitions for
Uni”n Comunal de Washington Heights, a group organizing against impending
changes in rent policy that would harm low-income tenants. And at the Jewish
Community Center of Staten Island, Bella Yakubovich and Alexandra Sviridova
decided to go to City Hall to defend English classes for
Not every class produces such palpable action--but that’s OK with the educators.
Participatory literacy methods may not lead to students taking to the streets,
Winston says, “but they may take home what they learn and give it to family
“Should they be demonstrating?” asks Gardner. She’s not sure. But she does
believe that her teaching helps immigrants “become advocates for themselves.”
And when that happens, she says, real civic engagement can follow.
“It’s not just about field trips to the bank,” says one teacher. “It’s about
critiquing the banking system.”