May 6, 2015

Penn GSE student working with Garces Foundation to help immigrants learn English

“I want you guys to focus on how the words sound.”

Woman teaching class

Lindsey Liu stands before two tables in a converted storefront in South Philadelphia, just a few blocks from the Italian Market. Eight students wait with pens in hand. Most are from Mexico and in their late teens or early 20s — the latest newcomers to this long-standing immigrant neighborhood.

The point of this exercise, Liu explains, is to get more familiar with tricky English words. The ones that sound like other words, or carry double meanings, she says. Don’t worry if you’re not sure what the word means at first. We’ll get to that.

Liu, who is studying for Master’s degrees in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and Quantitative Methods at Penn GSE, has spent the year co-teaching this English class run by the Garces Foundation. The nonprofit was co-founded by Jose Garces, the Ecuadorian-American Iron Chef who started his restaurant empire in Philadelphia

To complement their coursework, TESOL students have to spend their second year working with community organizations teaching English in Philadelphia. When Liu began volunteering with the Garces Foundation in the fall, she was nervous. Having grown up in China, she didn’t know how students would react to a teacher who wasn’t a native English speaker. She needed to figure out how to meet their needs.

“It helped me define who I am,” Liu says of her year in the classroom, “and what kind of teacher I want to be.”

By April, she knew the phrases that made her students confident and what areas gave them trouble. She could also relate to their situation.

Liu was born in southern China and grew up speaking Mandarin dialect. But when she was 9, the family moved to Shanghai. Recess was lonely for the only girl at school who didn’t speak the Wu dialect. In adapting, Liu learned she had a gift for language. 

She was taught some English in high school, mostly memorizing vocabulary without the context needed for real communication. In college, she majored in teaching Chinese as a foreign language. Her first teaching experience was tutoring Americans, Europeans and Koreans.

Now that she is fluent in English, Liu is learning Spanish and Japanese.

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Posters cover the walls of the small classroom listing the translations for months of the year, days of the week, and units of measurement. That last category is especially important for these students.

Most work in the culinary industry, and some came to class straight from the restaurant. Being able to speak English can be the difference between washing dishes and serving tables, working as a prep cook or sous chef. Speaking English means better pay, better chance of promotion and a lower risk of wage theft. Recognizing this, the Garces Foundation created the “English for the Restaurant and Everyday Life” class Liu teaches, along with eight other courses. The Foundation has enrolled almost 500 students in “English for the Restaurant and Everyday Life,” and there is usually at least 10 students on the waiting list for each class.

Liu and her co-teachers slowly read phrases loaded with linguistic pitfalls.

“We are going to have a little taste now,” Liu says.

Two students begin writing. The others repeat Liu’s words to themselves, letting the syllables roll around their mouths. Emilio Hernandez Chico, a high school senior who works at a restaurant and takes two classes with the Garces Foundation, plays with the last words. After a student writes the sentence on the board, he raises his hand.

“So taste is?”

“Taste is when you take a bite,” Liu replies. “Like a tasting menu.”

Hernandez Chico smiles and quickly nods. He’s ready for the next phrase.

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Liu will receive her M.S.Ed. in TESOL this month. In the fall, she’ll return to Penn GSE to finish her coursework in Quantitative Methods.

In her mind, the two degrees pair perfectly together, since language students have such a wide range of experience and familiarity. A student’s age often matters less than in other subjects. Understanding where they start and how they are progressing, Liu said, requires creating better assessments. Once you determine where a particular student’s language is skills are, you can better help him or her.

 “How can we use the data we collect from the classroom to improve individual performance?” Liu wonders.

Once she has both degrees, Liu wants to stay in the US, working with either a nonprofit or an independent school teaching English and Chinese.

But that’s next year. First, she’ll spend the summer in China. Then she’ll be back in this classroom, helping another group of students learn a new language and find their voice.