At Emergency Shelter, Refugees Plunge into English Learning

October 5, 2023
About five dozen men and women are learning English at Bedford Plaza Hotel. Photo by Mike Rosenberg 

About five dozen men and women in their 20s and 30s seated at round tables in a third-floor function room at the Bedford Plaza Hotel, all recent arrivals after escaping persecution and poverty in their homelands, joined in song Tuesday night: “How many years must some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?”

“Singing is a great way to learn a language,” explained Carrie Powers, director of English language learning for the Bedford schools. Powers, assisted by a cadre of volunteers, teaches refugees housed in the emergency shelter on The Great Road for two hours on Tuesday evenings. 

Since early August, state agencies have placed migrant families in the local facility. Most of the 99 rooms in the hotel now house families from Haiti and South America. 

Carrie Powers leads the group of people learning English in song. “Singing is a great way to learn a language,” she said. Photo by Mike Rosenberg

Near the end of this week’s English session, as volunteers passed around papers with the lyrics of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Powers picked up a guitar and announced, “This is my favorite song,” as she read each verse for repetition before the Bob Dylan song began. Last week’s selection was “This Land Is Your Land.”

“We are building language,” explained Powers, who also instructs an English language learners class of adult Bedford residents on Thursday nights at Bedford High School. “We are teaching building blocks of vocabulary, starting with family, then schools, then occupations. This is basic ELL.”

“Every group is listening, speaking, reading, and writing in one session,” she said. 

The refugees took a placement test at the first session, and about a dozen had enough English skills to form an accelerated group.

Tuesday evening, from the start, the room whirred with low-level conversation in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole; occasional bursts of laughter or applause; a crying infant; a teacher’s words of praise.

The students clustered in groups of six or seven, each with one or two volunteer teachers. Everyone was equipped with notebooks, pencils, folders, worksheets. Each section leader took attendance from a sheet with first names and hotel room numbers. A few parents juggled infants or toddlers. The group of adults worked throughout the two hours, speaking, listening, and reading silently and to each other. 

The first half of the session focused on words connected to families – review the topic introduced at last week’s session. Powers, presiding at the front of the room, requested, “If you have children, raise your hand. If you are a mother, raise your hand.”

Translating in Haitian Creole was Gerard Elien of Medford, whose wife Noelle is a fourth-grade teacher at Lane School.

“Let’s read all together,” volunteer Ryan Park instructed his group: “We are a happy family.” The students repeated: “Boy. Girl. Good morning, mother. Good morning, father.” A student came in a little late and, beaming, greeted a volunteer with “Good morning.”

The teachers all use the same material, but with different techniques, Powers said. Folks at one table were putting on a play. Others worked on a crossword puzzle. A volunteer led practice in reading numbers between 11 and 40, one at a time. Students repeated self-identification: “My name is…”

“Without the volunteers, this would never happen,” said Christine Smith, who coordinates that aspect of the project. “It’s really great that they’re so eager to learn English. Their children in school are just as interested in learning.”

Most of the children of the ELL class students were down on the second floor, cared for, and entertained by another group of volunteers. 

“Don’t get nervous. We are going to have a test on the family,” Powers announced as Elien translated. “Do not use your cellphones – no Google Translate.” 

She directed the volunteers to correct the tests as a group experience.

As the session moved into a second hour, Powers announced, “Now we are going to learn words that have to do with school.” The vocabulary was not just materials such as books, paper, and pencils, but also building features: door, bathroom, window. 

“Think about what school looked like in your country,” Powers suggested.

Participants referred to worksheets with a rudimentary schoolhouse and its components labeled in English. Group volunteers stressed repetition; some called on students to act out the words.

Powers said part of the funding for the program comes from a three-year grant from the Cummings Foundation. 

“It’s a big undertaking,” Powers said. “I’m glad our school community supports it.”

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Christine E Smith
October 5, 2023 9:42 pm

This is a great piece, Mike. Thank you for spending the evening at ESL and painting such a vivid picture of the classroom experience.

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