Teaching English and Connecting to Ancestry
March 28, 2013

As they have for several years, dozens of English as a Second Language (ESL or ESOL) instructors from all over the city gathered at the Tenement Museum on March 5 and 6 for the annual professional development workshops in conjunction with the City University of New York.

Professional development—the phrase often occurs in tandem with the word “mandatory,” and is all too rarely associated with concepts such as inspiration, renewal or revelation. But there is something uniquely moving about ESL workshops – especially well-conceived and well-taught ones such as these – when they are presented in an actual Lower East Side tenement where generations of immigrants lived, worked, struggled and became Americans.

James Kunen and other ESOL Instructors Visit the Shop Life Exhibit

James Kunen and other ESOL Instructors Visit the Shop Life Exhibit

Pedro Garcia, the museum’s Education Associate for Training and Outreach, led many of us up the narrow stairway and in and out of the tiny apartments as he described the “Shared Journeys” ESOL Program and “Introduction to Shop Life.” I couldn’t help but recall that my own forebears no doubt lived in apartments just like these. And the immigrant students that I teach today—how similar are the challenges that they face? Walking up those creaking stairs, in the footsteps of my ancestors, I realized once more what is so profoundly meaningful about teaching English to immigrants: It’s like helping my own grandparents.

Teacher and Author James Kunen

Teacher and Author James Kunen

Of course, I want to do that teaching as effectively as possible, and the other workshops presented on the ESOL nights at the museum were, as usual, extremely helpful in that regard. From technology tips to the use of evidence in writing to emotionally responsive teaching practices to – my choice – the kinetic techniques of “Pronouncercizing” – there were plenty of nuts-and-bolts takeaways to put to use in class the very next day. I’m looking forward to ESOL Night at the museum next year – and to visiting with my students, family and friends in the meantime.

Posted by James S. Kunen, ESL instructor at the Center for Immigrant Education and Training at LaGuardia Community College, and author of Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life.