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By Nan Frydland
Adult Education is the guise under which the U.S. government ostensibly provides migrants with the knowledge and instruction needed for integration into this society. Education, of course, is key, but what kind of education is required to facilitate acquiring the skills and competencies necessary to succeed in a new country? For more than 50 years, classes in English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) has been the primary source of migrant education in this country. The government view that all migrants need to succeed are English classes is at best, a short-sighted one. These classes are typically conducted twice a week, two hours each, or 120-160 hours. Ever try learning a new language in that many hours?
The government sank to new depths in 2014, instituting the pretentiously-named World-Class Instructional and Design Consortium (WIDA), effectively eliminating beginner ESOL classes and replacing them with College & Career Readiness instruction. Millions of low-literacy learners and those not seeking employment were stripped of their access to language instruction.
Since 2016, migrants have witnessed incendiary racist policies from the White House that have permeated our society, disrupted everyday expectations of safety, and most of all, threatened the lives and livelihoods of migrants and others across the nation.
Teaching ESOL to adult refugee newcomers in New York City, it is impossible to adhere to government-dictated mandates, standards, and tests. Learners are not so much interested in acquiring new verb tenses as they are answers to questions like these: What is recusal? What was that woman saying about sexually assaulted? When the President says he doesn’t care about the demonstrators does that mean he’s going to shoot them? Should I stay home from class that day?
My learners know that I will make their needs and interests my priority and they will leave class having had a discussion about every topic they’ve brought to class. Most teachers are not so privileged. That is where our adult education system doesn’t work.
I believe that it is time for radical change in adult education. It is apparent to me, from fifteen years of teaching ESOL, that it is not only implausible to believe one curriculum, focused on low-level employment skills and the concomitant language required for earning $7.25/hour can be created, but it is undesirable. We as a nation have a responsibility to provide integration skills for all migrants in order for newcomers to pursue lifelong education, to become fully active members of our democracy, and to contribute in a meaningful way to the labor force. That means responding to learners’ needs and interests, rather than what the government determines best.
Migrants come with their own funds of knowledge, abilities and skills in handling life situations and resolving problems, but according to our government, they have a knowledge “deficit” because they lack experience with American ways of thinking, learning, behaving, and speaking. Their own knowledge, experience, college degrees, and multi-language backgrounds are not assessed as they are funneled into work programs where their language needs are determined by their workplace.
A better way to deliver adult education is through culturally responsive teaching (CRT). This is not a celebration of individual cultures, holidays or costumes. It is a systematic way of incorporating the knowledge, learning and skills of learners into the classroom, of shifting the power from teacher to learners, and to teachers to design instruction that accepts, adapts, and accommodates learners’ ways of communicating, learning and being. I admit to my bias, as an instructor who has implemented this methodology successfully in colleges, private universities, community centers and non-government organizations. I studied in a graduate program whose director had developed her own theory and practice working with Hmong refugees in the 1980s and I have been an advocate ever since.
The main difference between CRT and government-inspired adult ed is that CRT requires that teachers actually listen to students. Not just to answer a question. But to participate as equals. It requires teachers shifting the power relationship in classrooms and asking first what students know about a topic before offering the knowledge that the teacher or government thinks important. It requires actually asking learners what they want to learn, what they need to learn, how they want to learn it, and teachers asking themselves how they can facilitate that learning. Like the physical therapy called the Mackenzie Method, clients are believed to have profound knowledge about themselves and success depends on clients sharing their funds of knowledge and experience with a professional who can use that information to deliver what best suits the client’s needs.
If adult education were designed to meet the needs and interests of all migrants, and if the primary objective were to serve every individual in order to facilitate the life, not just the language acquisition, of those people, then we could increase the number of active participants in our society, we could contribute meaningfully to rich lives, we would have a better economy, we would have a more peaceful country, and we would fulfill the promise of opportunities for better lives. Our teachers and learners deserve better than to be strangled by government mandates, tests, inappropriate “proficiency” criteria and the deficit model that has demeaned the education system for decades. By encouraging administrators, teachers and learners to work together on curricula that serve particular classrooms, every potential citizen will be offered the knowledge and skills training they deserve.
Nan Frydland, MFA, MS Ed in TESOL, is the Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at Frydland & Co., LLC and an ESOL teacher at Stamford Adult Education in Stamford, CT. Her research and writing interests are adult migrants and refugees, culturally responsive and liberation pedagogies, racism and social justice. She has published in The Journal of Transformative Learning, Idiom, College Quarterly and the ITLC Conference Proceedings. She is a frequent conference speaker.