Teaching ESOL Through Popular Education*

Alexander Lynn

Urban College, located in downtown Boston, is a two-year college offering programs towards degrees in early childhood education and human services. An English instructor is teaching English-as-a-second-language to immigrants/refugees from China, Morocco, El Salvador, Colombia, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. Her method is that of Popular Education. She is a devotee of education for liberation.

As such, she has studied the U.S. military and corporate dependence on the production of cocaine in Columbia, and the ruinous effects this forced one-crop economy has had over decades on the poor peasants of that country. She has participated in campaigns in her neighborhood in Boston’s African America to expose and put a stop to the importation of cocaine into her community.

She is aware of the cultural and spiritual traditions tying many African Americans to the peoples of Northern Africa, including Morocco. The homework and research assignments she gives out include directing her Moroccan students to uncover these cultural and spiritual ties, and to impart their discoveries to the rest of the class.

In fact, in accordance with the teaching method of education for liberation, each of the students is given assignments which connect their experiences from their country of origin to their present life, and the issues associated with emigration to the United States. The instructor had her Popular Education teeth cut in her teenage years during the nation-wide uprising of the Black American population, known today as the Civil Rights Movement, but known to her and her extended family of the time as the Black Liberation Movement (BLM). At the time of this movement — 1960’s-1970’s — social upheaval world-wide was the rule. In the People’s Republic of China (PRC) there was a revolution taking place within that country’s socialist revolution which was called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The spirit of that revolution led to a foreign policy of the PRC which supported nationalist/anti-imperialist and socialist uprisings around the world. It was in this context that the PRC openly supported, with propaganda and material resources, the Black Liberation Movement. At the apex of the BLM, 1968, Mao Tse-tung, then Chairman of the Communist Party of China, and Head of State said,

Some days ago, Martin Luther King, the Afro-American clergyman, was suddenly assassinated by the U.S. imperialists. Martin Luther King was an exponent of nonviolence. Nevertheless, the U.S. imperialists did not on that account show any tolerance toward him, but used counter-revolutionary violence and killed him in cold blood. This has taught the broad masses of the Black people in the United States a profound lesson. It has touched off a new storm in their struggle against violent repression sweeping well over a hundred cities in the United States, a storm such as has never taken place before in the history of that country. It shows that an extremely powerful revolutionary force is latent in the more than twenty million Black Americans.

This English instructor (now in her ‘50’s), deeply moved by this show of support for her people, could not but undertake, as a young activist, an in-depth study of socialism and of the Chinese revolution.

The instructor lived in a Boston neighborhood for 40 years, which was variously named Boston’s Black community, Boston’s Puerto Rican community, Boston’s Haitian community, and Boston’s Dominican community. As a revolutionary and political activist, she understood it as her responsibility to be aware of, in depth, the struggles of the Puerto Rican people, the Haitian people, and those of the Dominican people, particularly with regard to the U.S. invasions of each country, the U.S. sponsored assassinations of elected officials of each country, as preludes to the outright military occupation of these nations, turning them into full-fledged colonies.

It is in connection with this history — and particularly the English instructor being authoritative about the history of the countries of every student in the class — that the instructor gave out her assignments: The Salvadoran student was enjoined to study the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, the FMLN (the guerrilla army which represented the workers and peasants of El Salvador in their fight against the U.S.-backed military dictatorship), its origins, the role of the United States in creating a country of refugees, and the present status of the movement for freedom and justice in their country of origin. This study was to be developed to the level of a presentation made to the entire class. One Haitian student was enjoined to study and present on the immense countenance of Toussaint L’Ouveture and the Haitian slave revolution. Another was assigned the task of teaching her classmates about the Lavalas Movement in Haiti. Her instructor loaned her the text, In the Parish of the Poor, by President-elect Jean Bertrand Aristide.

In like manner, the Dominican students were given the assignment of telling the story of the election to President of the DR of Juan Bosch, socialist and close comrade-in-arms of Fidel Castro, his subsequent assassination by the U.S. military, and following this, the invasion of the country by U.S. marines, and the installation by the U.S. overlords of the cannibalist Trujillo military dictatorship which ate the Dominican people for over 30 years.

Some of the students had little systematic knowledge of the events here described. The Salvadoran Sister explained, in her presentation to the class regarding the FMLN:

When I was eleven years old the FMLN came into my town. My parents were told by town leaders that we had to flee. Many people from my extended family found ourselves hiding in a barn, cramped together, body to body, with no food or water, for over three days. When we “escaped” we never looked back. War was raging all over my country. At that age I did not really know what it was about. Ten years later we fled to the United States. As I said, we never looked back… — until three weeks ago when my instructor gave me this assignment. Now I know who the FMLN is. Now I know why they were fighting against the U.S.-backed military dictatorship of my country. I am very proud to find out that the FMLN is now the government of my country, trying to serve the real needs of the people of my country, and to turn a place that has been “a nation of refugees” into a haven of independence, sovereignty and freedom…

In the original presentation, the English was not as good as the above version. The class took her presentation and collectively edited it for grammar.

Four of the students were Chinese, three of them were teenagers during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and two of these three did not share the reverence which their instructor (African American) had for this movement/episode in the history of the Chinese revolution (1966–1976). One of them voluntarily wrote (in other words, she was not given this as an assignment) a paper denouncing Yao Wen-Yuan, one of the paramount leaders of the Cultural Revolution. Knowing that her instructor revered this leader, nevertheless the student identified him as responsible for all manner of crimes against the people, including the crime of pushing her beloved Chou En-Lai (then Secretary of State of the Peoples Republic of China) to his death due to over-stress.

The method of the instructor, Liberation Pedagogy, is responsible for creating the space for these students to be moved to voluntarily write essays in English, their hoped-to-be second language, even essays which openly contradicted the views of their professor.

The Puerto Rican students who investigated the history of the Puerto Rican Independentista movement were amazed to discover how well known were the Puerto Rican leaders to freedom-loving people world-wide. They had never heard of Lolita Lebron or of “El Maestro” Don Pedro Albizu Campos (who Fidel Castro himself cites as his mentor and credits with being one of his foremost inspirations to political activism). While one of the Haitian students was well aware of the U.S. role in the presence of successive, vicious, inhuman military dictatorships in her country over the course of the last five decades, and the responsibility of U.S. corporate interests in the maintenance of a half-starved, poverty-stricken people in this island nation, the other two Haitians were less so. Therefore, the need to make this the subject of their English study was all the more impending.

Towards the end of the semester the instructor, who brought in guest speakers regularly, had the student activist group called SIM come to present. The Student Immigrant Movement was made up of young political activists who were fighting for the rights of immigrant students. These students had different class and social backgrounds from the students taking the course. Some of the SIM presenters were attending Harvard; some were already engaged in professions such as psychology and art. The students taking the course were working as orderlies in hospitals, day care workers, and nannies.

The class studied a promotional leaflet of SIM a week before the presentation. The leaflet was semi-intelligible for the class — not principally because of a lack of good grammar, and not principally because of the low English skills of the students in the class. The leaflet was hard to understand because it was grandiose: It made six points in each sentence, had manifest run-ons, and was endeavoring to solve all the world’s problems inside one paragraph.

The SIM presentation was very enthusiastically received by the students in the class, as the content of the presentation was the rights of the students. Specifically, they were mobilizing public support for the DREAM Act, a bill before the U.S. Congress which would grant the same public assistance which is afforded low income citizens to undocumented immigrant students. The information was of direct practical need to the students in the class.

This presentation lasted half of the session. The second half of the session was devoted to the students teaching the presenters how to write a leaflet that could be understood by, and be a benefit to, their readers. They went over the grammatical errors and the grandiose phraseology and came to common ground on reformulations.

This is the method of Popular Education. The agents of literacy are the students, not a book, or a professor. Learning oral presentation in English, and how to write grammatically correct English sentences, are the bi-product of a process which undertakes the social, economic and political needs of the students as the subject of study.

At least half of the students had stories about other professors whose teaching style consisted largely of punishing them for their lack of proficiency in English. If you, the reader, can at this moment abstract this image from that of a personal experience, and look at it from the point of view of systemic patterns, it must be readily obvious that this is the way of education in the United States: Students compete with each other for grades. If the student does not do well, she is penalized with a lower grade. In the case of refugees fleeing their countries of origin, coming to the United States, and taking English classes; they are doing so in order that they may take care of their most rudimentary business of life: to gain employment, pay bills, feed their families, enroll their children in school, each of these tasks being at once basic needs, and at the same time human rights. In the education industry in the United States, these students are “evaluated” as to whether or not they deserve to be able to feed their children, make a living wage, or pay their rent without getting ripped off by a vulturistic landlord.

One of the Chinese students made it a habit to print out, from her home computer, articles which she thought her instructor would be interested in. To the extent that she presented them as if she had written them, this is called plagiarism. Two issues arose from this series of exchanges: (1) One of the Moroccan students complained that this Chinese student was voluntarily going above and beyond the call of duty, and that she should not be given a higher grade than others in the class who failed to go to these lengths to impress the instructor. This complaint came mid-way through the semester, and these students, while being aware of the ways of the U.S. in competition and grading, had not yet accustomed themselves to the instructor’s complete rejection of the standards of competition and grading in the learning process.

(2) The issue of plagiarism was one which most of the students had trouble with. The law regarding plagiarism protects the private property of ideas. In the U.S. today, and especially with the advent of cyberspace and internet, presenting one’s ideas as one’s own private property is a very complicated and intricate endeavor. Students told horror stories of having been expelled from classes for the crime of not understanding the law regarding plagiarism. In this class, under the way of this practitioner of Popular Education, the students studied and learned together, they helped each other, they took their “tests” together, and they developed their ideas in community.

The class practiced each-one-teach-one, and in the course of the semester the English oratory and writing skills greatly improved for each student. The instructor recorded a grade of “A” into the transcripts of each one of them.

This rendering of the way of teaching ESOL is a snapshot of the method, theory and practice of Liberation Pedagogy.

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* This essay is excerpted from Alexander Lynn. (2013). The Community Teacher’s Guide to Liberation Pedagogy, Chapter One, “People’s Curriculum.” Boston: Boston Women’s Fund Publisher, pp14–18.

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