Hidden Cleveland: Classes overcome language barriers
by CHRISTY ARMSTRONG  Banner Staff Writer
Feb 27, 2014 | 1473 views | 0 0 comments | 23 23 recommendations | email to a friend | print
ANNA McALISTER uses the Bible passage Luke 11:34 to warm up students in her English as a second language class, Wednesday night at Westwood Baptist Church. Banner photo, HOWARD PIERCE
ANNA McALISTER uses the Bible passage Luke 11:34 to warm up students in her English as a second language class, Wednesday night at Westwood Baptist Church. Banner photo, HOWARD PIERCE

While the opportunities available in Cleveland and Bradley County have continued to attract more residents from other countries, some have found themselves dealing with a newfound language barrier upon arriving.

To help them overcome that, three groups in Cleveland have been offering free English classes to adults who want to improve their reading, writing and speaking skills in the language of where they’re living now.

Those classes happen on a continual basis at the Bradley/Polk Adult Education offices, at Lee University and at Westwood Baptist Church.

Zoe Renfro of Bradley/Polk Adult Education, which is affiliated with the Bradley County Schools system, offers free English classes several times per week with the help of a grant awarded by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

The office places students in different classes based on their skill levels by having students take a placement test when they register.

“We test them up front ... so we know how to teach them,” Renfro said.

Classes follow curricula that have students practicing a variety of skills, both spoken and written. Renfro said this also includes U.S. civics information that can be helpful to the students who eventually decide to pursue their general equivalency diploma or work toward becoming a U.S. citizen. In addition to the English classes, the office also coordinates testing for the GED.

Renfro said there are generally between 12 and 15 students studying English in each class, and some past students have later received GEDs after having not known English at all before their coursework began.

They are offered both morning and night, four days per week, at the adult education offices at 1450 Strawberry Lane.

To take part in the classes, prospective students must visit the office to fill out a basic form with help from staff members, and schedule a time to take the placement test.

Dr. Christopher Blake, assistant professor and the director of Lee University’s English Language Center, said it provides those wanting to learn English the opportunity to learn from university students are studying to become English teachers.

As part of the university’s TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) degree program, Lee students host a weekly English class available to anyone who needs help learning the language.

The class’ instructors do not follow a set curriculum and are asked to create lesson plans each semester based on what students say they want to learn.

“We customize a curriculum each semester,” Blake said. “This semester, we are focusing on employment.” 

At the beginning of the current semester, the students said they wanted to learn the English skills that would help them write resumes, take part in job interviews and handle various on-the-job situations.

While the classes officially begin and end based on the university’s semester schedules, he said this is done for the benefit of the Lee student instructors. Anyone wishing to be a student in the free English class can join the class at any time.

Classes meet on Thursday nights from 6:30 to 8:30 in a building on Lee’s campus. To register for the class and receive detailed directions on how to find it, call 423-614-8223 or email cblake@leeuniversity.edu.

Anna McAlister, who coordinates the program at Westwood Baptist Church, said it offers three levels of English classes — beginning, intermediate and advanced.

She said each of the three classes generally have between five and eight students in them.

The classes are taught by volunteers who, in many cases, also teach English for a living. The classes also have volunteers help with the parts of the classes in which participants practice having conversations in English. McAlister said teachers do not follow a set lesson plan because they like to get an idea of students’ skill levels.

In the beginning classes, students start with the absolute basics, while the advanced students tackle tasks like writing essays. Students who pass the advanced class have sometimes gone on to earn GEDs and take the tests necessary to become a U.S. citizen.

Classes meet on Wednesday nights, from 6 to 8. Since the English classes are held at the same time as some of the church’s other groups, children are able to attend Bible classes for their age groups while their parents are in English classes. While McAlister said students have sometimes requested other meeting times, there are currently only enough volunteer teachers to hold the classes one night per week.

She added the language classes are part of the church’s regular ministries, and part of the goal for offering them is to have an opportunity to share the Christian faith with people while they are also teaching them a valuable life skill, the ability to communicate in their current country’s language.

Anyone who wants to take part in the class at Westwood need only show up at the church about 10 or 15 minutes prior to the 6 p.m. Wednesday class time.

Representatives from all three English classes said their students hail from many different places across the globe.

McAlister said there are currently students from 11 different countries in the classes at Westwood Baptist, ranging from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to France. Renfro said some of her office’s students have hailed from countries like China and Uzbekistan, and Blake has had many students from various countries as well.

Renfro said many in the Cleveland area might not be aware their neighbors come from so many different places — not just south of the border. She added she and her fellow staff enjoy welcoming new people to the country and giving them the skills they need to live, work and pursue official citizenship.

Blake said he would like to see more local organizations working together to help people learn the English language.