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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Lees

Immigration, Imagined Identity, and Minority Voices: Key Takeaways from the MIDTESOL

It was my first time attending the MIDTESOL. I have only been working in adult education as an ESL instructor for a little over a year. I love it, and I wanted to know more about ways to improve my classroom and help improve every students’ learning experience.

Last year and in the summer, I primarily taught high or intermediate-level students. They already have a firm foundation in English (they know how to read and usually write in English, though they may have some difficulty with basic sentence structure.)

The start of this school year has been a completely new experience for me. I am teaching level 1, and though I don’t have any CASAS students, most of my students can only say hello, they have very little vocabulary and speaking is often fragmented. I knew I needed to take a step back from what I’d already learned teaching level 3 and focus on how I could improve.

There were a few key takeaways from lectures that really spoke to me at the conference, and I wanted to share my observations with you.

Ideology and Imagined Identity

When I think of teaching English, I really only think of people whose native language is English. (I know… sounds really ignorant I would think that way, right?) However, for teaching English to speakers of other languages, there’s a lot of instances where learning English is a requirement in the country where they live but it may not be their first language. An additional instance would be someone who moved to the United States with a background in English or who learned English over time and then taught it later.

I never really considered this, and it was really interesting to hear from three people teaching English when it wasn’t their first language: Erlinda Mikal, Jiahong Wang, and Chang Liu–all professors or adjuncts at the University of Kansas now.

In all of their stories, I noticed that English seemed to be a requirement to their native language in all of their countries. But what really struck me about them learning a second language (and then two of them also knew a third language) was that they created an imagined identity in which they knew how learning English would help them.

I think this is really important for our students, but the “how” is not always clear. I think it’s really important to create and see that imagined identity where they speak English, because otherwise, it gets really hard to come to night class. As a teacher, I think you have to show real, practical ways of how it will help them and how it can be part of their imagined identity.

Immigration Policy 101

I was fascinated by speaker Roger C. Rosenthal, who is an attorney and the Executive Director of the Migrant Legal Action Program (MLAP) in Washington, D.C. (And of course, I also found his talk very frustrating and sad.) Immigration law in the country hasn’t really changed, according to Rosenthal, since 1996 (with IIRIRA.)

There’s a lot of misconceptions around immigration. First off, a lot of people throw different words around that don’t mean the same things. For instance, an immigrant is not an undocumented person or a refugee and a refugee is not an asylum seeker.

Secondly, I have heard people say that the number of immigrants in the country is increasing; that’s not true. The number is actually lower than it was several years ago. And lastly, it can take a long time to get a green card or citizenship in America (possibly up to 20 years.) To me, it makes a lot of sense why some people would overstay on a visa or come across the border. They might never have a chance to actually live here, even if they do all the right things. It’s extremely unfair.

One thing that is good to know is if you are a refugee or asylee, you can use any benefits, including cash welfare, health care, food programs, and non-cash programs and these will not hurt your chances of getting a green card. In addition, If you are applying for U.S. citizenship, you cannot be denied citizenship for lawfully receiving benefits including welfare, health care, food programs, and non-cash programs.

Minoritized Student Voices

This was a talk for K-12, so it didn’t apply as directly to my situation. However, it did in the sense that it’s important to engage in productive discomfort in order to gain empathy for others.

In my intermediate class, I would talk with students about issues going on in the news or about issues going on at home. We would also learn about previous presidents and celebrate Black History month, while still providing an interesting space to improve our English. In level 1, it’s more difficult to do this.

What I do try to do is make sure that no one who speaks the same language is partnered with each other for group activities. I want everyone to be and get comfortable speaking with others from different countries, not only to improve their language but their world experience.

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