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Acculturation in Context: Laurie Millman, Executive Director of the Center for New Americans

Acculturation in Context: Laurie Millman, Executive Director of the Center for New Americans


At the Center for New Americans we teach
English, like the International Language Institute, and Macey and I had talked
before so I don’t want to repeat what she said, I want to build on it, but we
teach English and literacy and computer classes. We offer distance learning so
people can take what they’ve learned in the classroom and learn on their own. We
teach career pathways classes. We work with Curren & Berger and we provide
citizenship assistance, and we are licensed to do some immigration legal
services as well. So in terms of communication and cultural barriers, what
have we learned? I want to talk about what has been said today and reinforce
it just adjusting what I was going to say to what we’ve talked about. We teach
people who have had no formal education and may be preliterate. We teach people who
have been professionals in their home country. And how do we do that? We teach
to people’s goals and needs. We ask people what they want to learn and we
weave the curriculum frameworks and all of the state standards and requirements
into keeping things relevant, so, keeping it real. So people want to know how to
support their children in school or they want to know what they’re going to
expect when they go to the airport. We weave all of the standards into teaching
to people’s needs and goals and we adjust our instruction to what students
are focused on. We use a lot of pictures. We use a lot of miming and role-playing.
A lot of acting to make certain that people who have not spoken English
before and are speaking it along with people from every conceivable country in the
world in our countries, in our classes are at the same zero level and they’re
still speaking English and understanding and moving forward. One of our former
teachers and program coordinators said that we are really a salad and not a
melting pot. That the melting pot analogy is very attractive but it really does
immigrants a disservice because in a melting pot everything sort of blends
together, where in a salad everything works together but retains it’s
own identity. And to the point about culture being so important that you made
so compellingly this morning, we recognize that people don’t give up
their culture, shouldn’t give up their culture, that their culture is who they
are and enriches who we now are together. And we want to celebrate that. In fact, we
host a naturalization ceremony every year outside the courthouse on the
morning of July 4th and invariably the presiding magistrate will say, please
hold on to your culture even as you embrace what’s new and valuable and that
you’ve worked for in the U.S. you need to preserve the richness and history of
your own culture. The other, you know, thing that I was thinking of it as I was
listening today what makes what we’ve learned — is the respect that I think it’s
so important to bring. Because students, no matter what their educational
background, no matter what their life history, have lessons that they’ve
learned and can share. Have skills that are translatable. And one of the things
that’s really interesting now is that so many of our students have been
caregivers in their home country and come from caring traditions especially
in working with the elderly. And if you think about the industries that are
growing in this region and where the dearth of workers are it’s caring for an
increasingly aging population. And the home health agencies and the nursing
homes cannot recruit and train people fast enough, but we have classrooms full
of people who do this quite naturally and comfortably and willingly and
professionally, and so we are thrilled that we have a new grant to be able to
train people to learn English even as they become qualified for health care
jobs at Smith Vocational School, and that’s really honoring traditions that
are much more salient in other countries, very needed here. Other things that help:
Small steps. All of our students have goals and some of the goals seem so out
of reach and the pathway can seem so overwhelming and it becomes so much more
accessible if our teachers and advisors work with students to break things into
little steps. And sometimes students have an a-ha moment where they say, you know, I
don’t need to do this all at once. I know where I’m going and it’s okay if I
accomplish this goal and we celebrate and then I go on to something else and
come back to the next. So, sort of like in a career pathway, stackable certificates.
So you might train to be a personal care attendant, and then you might work and
then when you’re ready you might come back and study certified nursing
assistant, and then you might work and then if you’re ready you come back and
you study for nursing. And many of our students are on that pathway. And so
things become much more possible. Creating community — so important,
communities and rituals. We have an end of cycle celebration at the end of every
class cycle everyone cooks and brings food from their home country.
Increasingly students are asking, can I bring music and I’ll DJ, can I read poetry,
how about for class things of song. And being able to adapt a ceremony that
you’ve been doing for many years to adjust to embracing student suggestions
that make it that much richer. We encourage students to be leaders in the
classroom. So where students can teach each other, teachers fall back and allow
students to be leaders because there’s reasons why they should. The other thing
is being realistic about the trajectory. You know, we’re all nonprofits here and
we all answer to funders, and funders all want outcomes, and one of the things
that’s so challenging, I think, is to acknowledge the need for outcomes and
document them and deliver them while keeping your eye on the mission and
recognizing that humans don’t fit neatly and evenly into outcome
boxes. And we have a student that we’ve known for eight years or more who studied English with us and then went and got a job and then when
she felt stable enough came back for her citizenship. Didn’t pass the first time.
Worked with a tutor and just passed and the trajectory is just so long, and who
knows when she’ll come back to us the next time. On Friday we will celebrate
the graduations from the advanced manufacturing and computer numerical
coding class that GCC offers of two of our alumni who couldn’t possibly have
tackled that work when they got out of our program, but five years hence they’re
stars in the class. So it ain’t over till it’s over. It’s a long journey and people
come back to you for support when they’re ready for it and you need to
adjust to give it to them in the way that they want it. And the stories — we
have an 80- or 81-year-old woman with a walker who never got to complete school
in her home country. She doesn’t fit into any of our funders’ boxes in terms of the
outcomes which will deliver, except the fact that her daughter went back for
professional training because she was inspired by her mother.
So we are inspired by the people we work with and I think we’re all growing
together.

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