One of his first challenges was figuring out how to implement Krashen’s theory of free voluntary reading for these students, who not only spoke no English but also had never been to school. He started with some talking books online.
Next, with the knowledge that “in community organizing we find that often the best ideas for solving problems come from the people most affected by the problem”, Larry set off with the help of an interpreter to meet parents of his new students in their homes. One parent mentioned that having computers at home would help; lacking public transport (and driving licenses which required knowledge of English) most parents couldn’t get to the school to take advantages of the after-school program he’d developed for the students. Larry got the school to donate the computers it happened to be replacing right then directly to the families. He also succeeded in getting a grant from a foundation which he’d worked with in his organizing days to cover the cost of an Internet connection.
Eighty percent of the members of each family agreed to use the computer and Internet for English reading with the talking books for a minimum of one hour a day; often they ended up using it together. In this way, the Internet, which is often seen as weakening face to face relationships, served as a tool which families used together.
Comparison of progress with a group who did not have computers and Internet at home revealed that the “computer group” showed double the improvement. The school district was so impressed that it provided $80,000 to triple the size of the program. You can read an article about the project here.
Larry has commented that community organizing and teaching aren’t really all that different. This may not seem so obvious on the surface, but even in some short TEFL courses (the CELTA is the one I have personal experience of), you can notice the emphasis on motivating students to use what they know and figure things out for themselves. In practice of course, this can be frustrating for both the teacher an the student initially (why not just give them the answer?!) but in the long run, this strategy has positive results. And this is true not only in teaching but in other areas as well.
Given his support for the value of this – and also his extensive experience in another relevant field – I asked Larry to give an example of a typical mistake teachers (or organizers) make in this area.
“I think one mistake both beginning teachers and beginning community organizers can make when they try to help low-income people develop a sense of autonomy and self-development is have a romanticized vision of going along with whatever the students (or the residents of the community you’re organizing) want. That’s a recipe for disaster. People have been trained to be powerless over the years. And we teachers, to quote Oliver North’s attorney, are not just potted plants. We can paint a vision for what is possible, and then help students and others change and modify it to make it their own, with the benefit of our experience and knowledge.”
My readers may have also noted my repeated frustration with the English only laws I keep reading about. Whenever I get ahold of an ESL teacher in the US, I like to ask them about this (see Amy’s great answer too) because it is a theme connected to people they work with on a daily basis.
I realize that as with many issues it can be hard to come down on one side or another – reality is complex and doesn’t usually give us the either/or options that would make life easy. But I asked Larry to add what he could about this topic, as well as about the claims I so often hear about today’s immigrants learning English more slowly.
“Immigrants to the U.S., and their children, will develop English skills because it’s the language of power in this country, just as my parents and the ancestors of most of us who live here today did. Countless studies show that immigrants now are learning English at the same rate as immigrants have done historically. And all those historical immigrant waves also initially had schools, media, religious congregations, etc. that provided support in their home languages.
He also provided an insightful explanation for the roots of what I see as some unfortunately xenophobic views in our country.
“I believe that the kind of xenophobia demonstrated by anti-immigrant strategies like the English-only movement is the result of many of our community institutions, like religious congregations, schools, unions, and community groups, allowing the public debate to be manipulated by others with far different agendas, and these agendas don’t accurately reflect the values of inclusiveness our country has historically stood for. It also has not been unusual in our country for some to try to pit low-income people against each other because of skin color, language, gender, or country of origin, and I think the English only movement and the present hysteria against undocumented immigrants is just another example of this taking place.
If you want some excellent online English language resources, updated daily, Larry’s Websites of the Day blog is the place to go. If you want to read more about his community organizing, or specifically his success in having computers donated, find several articles about him here. Thanks to Larry for taking the time to share his experience in this interview!