VALATIE–Most of us know what it means when a person says that he “bit off more than he could chew,” unless of course one was new to the United States or English was not the person’s first language. Idioms like “throw in the towel” can create all kinds of misunderstandings for non-native English speakers. So interpreting them is one of the topics for the students who attend the Valatie Literacy Connections class that convenes at the Senior Center on Williams Street every Tuesday.
Literacy Connections is a non-profit organization founded in 2001 to help adults and families become functionally literate. The program is focused on literacy for adults in one-on-one and small group tutoring. Its headquarters are in Poughkeepsie and classes are offered in Dutchess, Orange, Columbia and Greene counties. In Columbia County the classes are offered in two locations: the Valatie Senior Center on Tuesday evening from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., and in Hudson at the Hudson Area Library on Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. and on Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon.
Tamara McGlauflin, coordinator of the group, said she and the other teachers are very much a team. She is a homemaker and former 2nd grade teacher. The other two teachers are Karen Vecellio, a primary school teacher at Ichabod Crane, and Mindy Stockman, a homemaker, mother and school mentor.
The teachers are all volunteers who are dedicated to the task of helping people negotiate basic and complex puzzles of communicating in English.
“They are all educated and among them speak multiple languages,” said Ms. McGlauflin of the four regular students in the Valatie class. “We plan lessons around what they want, so we help them with things like improving their accent, understanding idioms and just talking about life,” she said.
One of the students, a man named Zenek originally from Poland, arrived in the US five years ago via the Philippines and other countries. “I want to become better with conversational English,” he said. Another student, Hans, is from Germany. He has been in the US for 12 years. Both are university graduates. Zenek speaks Polish, Russian, English, German and French. Hans speaks German French, English and Spanish.
Hans started with the Literacy Connections class in October. In previous years, he had attended ESL classes in Kingston where he says there are many more Central American as well as Russian students. His goal is to apply for citizenship, but he talked about the help he gets from the class with conversational communication.
“Basic things like when you go to the doctor, you need to be able to describe something very specific about how you’re feeling. I can hear it and understand it, but speaking is very different,” said Hans.
“Literacy class helps with motivation,” he added, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
A third student who declined to give her name, is originally from the northern part of India and has been in the United Sates for 15 years. Her goal from the class is to improve her conversational speaking, pronunciation and vocabulary in order to improve her employment opportunities. She attended university in India and speaks Hindi and Punjabi in addition to English.
During the class, they take turns reading from a list of various idioms: he let the cat out of the bag; they were in the same boat; she jumped on the bandwagon; he bought the farm. In the process of discussion the teachers help them with pronunciation and vocabulary in addition to what the phrases mean. The students also read newspaper articles for vocabulary and meaning.
It was noticeable that there weren’t more Spanish speakers people participating. In Valatie, transportation is one of the issues and the teachers also speculated that immigration enforcement activity might discourage people from attending.
The classes are free and no questions are asked about citizenship status. More students and volunteer tutors are welcome.
The Literacy Connections classes held at the Hudson Area Library are quite different. On an evening in March, there were 19 students, ranging from beginner level 1 to advanced level 3. The level 1 teachers are Jeri Lyn Gilchrest and Chris Boland. They have 8 students, all from Bangladesh. They learn English vocabulary, reading and writing. They write their names and they write the current month, day and year. Ms. Gilchrist reminds them that it is the first day of spring, prompting a discussion of flowers, specifically the tulip. They copy the word from the whiteboard into their workbooks.
A level 2-3 class taught by Rhonda Makoske has four students from Bangladesh and one from Puerto Rico. Her students had just gone through the process of applying for library cards and they gathered around a small table where they greeted a new student from Puerto Rico.
B. Docktor (an occasional contributor to The Columbia Paper) has been volunteering as a tutor in the program for two years. Her advanced class has four students, one from Central America, one from Haiti and two from Bangladesh. On this evening she was being assisted by a new volunteer, Fern Fleckman.
Ms. Docktor’s digital projector is connected to her laptop so she can find things quickly on the internet. They read from Elizabeth Claire’s “Easy English News,” a publication created for use in ESL classes. The topic of this part of the class circulated around the definition of a charitable organization, what charity means and how to detect bogus appeals for money and protect personal information.
After class Mr. Boland says he started teaching in December. He is a project engineer who lives in Hudson. “I was currently between jobs and found out about the program on the Hudson Community Facebook page and just thought it would be interesting,” he said.
Ms. Gilchrist lives in New Baltimore and has a fulltime job in Albany as a health insurance benefits consultant.
“I know kids in the neighborhood where I live who go to foreign countries and teach ESL,” she said. So she signed up with her friend, Ms. Makoske, who also lives in New Baltimore and is director of Medical Imaging at Columbia Memorial Hospital. Her thoughts about English as a second language were pointed: “In my job, I became aware of how important it is to be able to communicate when you are trying to get health services,” she said.
“There are many people in the community who can benefit by this and they know it will help them be better citizens rather than being dependent,” said Ms. Makoske. “They are so excited to learn, and they are so kind, and for me,” she said, “this is really a hoot— it’s so much fun!”
Hudson Valley Area Coordinator Heather Martin, whose office is in the library, said that that Literacy Connections is not just directed toward people who have emigrated from non-English speaking countries. “There are many people who have lived in the United States all their lives but never learned to read or write; we provide one-on-one reading, writing and also basic math. All tutoring is done in a public location,” she said.