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Building Community by Teaching English, Especially in the Time of the Pandemic

by Elaine Roberts

Director of International Center of Catholic Charities Community Services

Learning a language requires confidence, courage, and the support of a community. Catholic Charities Community Services, through its International Center, has offered ESOL programming for immigrant adults in New York City and the Lower Hudson Valley for over 10 years. At our main Center in lower Manhattan, we offer classes and programs to a diverse group of adult learners from myriad cultures and neighborhoods.

Not all students are able to attend these classes—especially those who may have little or no experience in a formal educational setting or those who have fears about their status, family obligations, health concerns, or erratic work schedules. To reach these learners, our Center instructors go to their neighborhoods and use their input to design programs. In these ESOL classrooms we build community by teaching English.

In our Community Programs learners are engaged from the beginning. We ask about their experience and goals as we design the courses; giving agency helps ensure students get what they need. We use their feedback so that the class materials are meaningful and relevant and so they gain communication skills that they can use in their daily lives and the confidence to become active and engaged members in their communities. One student reflected on their experience, “Now, I can believe a little more in myself.”

No matter the situation outside of class, all students in our programs have support and encouragement in the classroom. Building this sense of community is a vital component of a language classroom and providing a warm, welcoming, and safe space for students to talk and share their experiences is a core part of our programming. As one of our participants shared, “The students help one another. We are good family from different countries.”

This sense of community has become even more important during remote programming, which our Center developed as the Covid pandemic struck New York. Although we had to make an abrupt switch to online classes in the spring of 2020, many students are now comfortable and familiar with using technology and are enthusiastic to gain skills that can help them with work.

A student reflected on their new digital skills, “Thanks for taking your time to teach us things so we can compete in today's world.” Providing individual support so students can connect and spending class time reviewing basic Zoom functions and online etiquette has helped students recreate the sense of community they had in person. Now many students prefer online programming- they have the support and connection they need to learn without the challenges of childcare and commuting.

With community in the classroom all learners will feel welcomed and can find success. To learn more about Community Programs, please visit our website:

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