English language classes for new Minnesotans mix in civics and life skills, too

“When is Valentine’s Day?” Deena Johnson asks her students during a recent afternoon civics class.

“A special day!” says Suag, a bubbly woman from Libya.

“Yes, it’s a special day,” Johnson agrees. “But when is Valentine’s Day?”

It’s a pretty standard introduction for the adult English as Second Language classes held throughout the Twin Cities. Next, the students read three different explanations of how Valentine’s Day came to be and discuss common symbols like cupid and his arrows.

But although the students are all English language learners — most of them at an intermediate or low-advanced level — this isn’t just an English class. After the St. Valentine stories, the students will take out classroom laptops and complete simple Microsoft Excel projects they’ve been working on. And there will be a test on the recent banking and budgeting unit.

Last week, a local politician came to talk to the class, along with a police officer who talked about Neighborhood Watch and what to do in an emergency.

“We do a lot of life skills,” Johnson told me before the class started. “Basic math, balancing checkbooks, figuring out the temperature.”

And they take field trips to learn more about their community. They’ve played basketball at the YWCA, visited the Science Museum of Minnesota and done a book scavenger hunt at the public library. “It’s about knowing what services and opportunities are available to them,” Johnson said.

There’s a unit on the basic principles and structures of the U.S. government, and in the fall they went to CivicFest at the Minneapolis Convention Center. “They had a model of Air Force One that we could go in and a model of the White House,” Johnson said. “They got a real kick out of that; it was really cute.”

These trips, along with class materials, are paid for by a federal grant funneled through the state Department of Education, and the course is run by the Minnesota Literacy Council. There are two teachers who cover a four-hour class; Johnson usually teaches the second half, plus an English class in the evening, but today she’s filling in for her co-teacher during the first half of the class as well.

The three differing origins of Valentine’s Day are all from the third century. One of the students asks what “century” means, and Johnson tells her it means a period of 100 years. The student is still confused. Johnson draws a timeline on the board using “birth of Jesus,” “third century” and “2009” as reference points. Then she asks if the students know where the Roman Empire was based.

“Italy,” says Abraham from Eritrea.

“We should go there!” Suag adds enthusiastically.

Official class enrollment is about 20, but because students may have jobs or other commitments, there are usually about 10 or 12 students on any given day. “Just the time of day makes it harder for us to get a full class of students,” Johnson said. This particular program started in 2006, though it’s not the only civics course in the Twin Cities.

The most difficult thing to deal with as a teacher is the open enrollment, according to Johnson. “People come and go.”

It can also be tricky when students have different levels of English. “It does make it a little challenging,” Johnson said. “What’s great is to see how the students develop this little community and the Level 6 students will jump right in to help the Level 4 students.”

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