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Throughout the spring of 2023, many new immigrants arrived in Nashua – from the Ukraine, Brazil, the Congo, the Dominican Republic, China, and many other nations. They came to the Nashua Adult Learning Center to register for English classes. We told them that summer registration would be available on our website starting May 1. We gave this date to so many new students that, by the time May 15th rolled around, all of our classes were full! Closing our registration came as a shock to everyone, especially many of our current students, who were crowded out! We learned 80% of the students enrolled in our summer session were brand new to the Adult Learning Center. What could we do?
The Connections program, and nine tutors from the Volunteer Tutoring program, came to our rescue! This summer the tutors co-facilitated four six-week Connections book discussion groups using the program’s new “book grant” option. Book grants have become a popular way for instructors to lead their own discussions, and to tailor instruction around literature to accomplish their curriculum goals. For Nashua Adult Learning Center, this option allowed us to serve 35 students who otherwise wouldn’t have had access to summer English instruction.
After participating in a training workshop with Mary Nolin, the Connections program manager, a few tutors expressed concern about using children’s literature to teach English to speakers of other languages. How could students engage with literature when they did not have command of English language conventions? How would these books benefit them? Wouldn’t a textbook be better for learning English? Nevertheless, the tutors agreed to give it a try.
This summer, each student received six beautiful books from Connections to take home and share with families and friends. The books were chosen by taking into account the students’ personal interests as well as their current English proficiency level. The book topics ranged from Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement to indigenous history and the clean-up of the Nashua River. However, the most popular stories were immigrants’ tales of the struggles of starting a new life in a new country. Among these was Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, the story of a young mother coming to the United States and finding comfort and belonging at her local library. After reading Dreamers, one student reflected, “Everybody has a dream. My dream comes true. I have the same experience. The same feeling as the book. We immigrate to another country. At first it is tough and hard. After a while, it gets better. A better life and better education.”
Through our four Connections groups, we were able to offer not only instruction, but a sense of belonging to our new students. There’s a rare magic that happens when a small group of people gather and read a book together. Beyond just seeing words on a page, we hear them read aloud in our own voice, and the voices of our classmates. We are moved by the stories and the illustrations, and we see ourselves and the people we love in the characters in the books. We get a glimpse into the author’s life, and we are ready, in turn, to share pieces of our own lives.
One tutor, who had initially expressed hesitations about using children’s literature with ESL students, reflected, “Everyone [teachers and students] … seemed to appreciate the books to take home to children or other family members. The books are a valuable and appreciated part of the program. Other than that, people just want to TALK. I was amazed and fascinated by how much our students shared.”
Through these books, we went on a journey together, and it brought us closer to one another. We looked forward to each week’s new adventure, presented on the pages of the book, to sharing more about who we are and where we came from, and to hearing the stories of others and the lands they have called home. We felt safe enough to open up and take a chance, and to receive the gifts that are the little pieces of the others in our community.
I highly recommend sharing a Connections book series with your students, whoever they may be. You will not be the same person you were before it began. It is a magic that can’t fully be explained – it has to be lived and felt.
New Hampshire Humanities programs are made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this these programs do not necessarily represent those of the NEH or New Hampshire Humanities.