Mason Reaches Out to Spanish-Speaking Community with Literacy Courses

Posted: August 3, 2009 at 1:01 am, Last Updated: August 13, 2009 at 11:00 am

By Catherine Ferraro

Lisa Rabin, associate professor of Spanish. Creative Services photo

Lisa Rabin, associate professor of Spanish, founded a community literacy project. Creative Services photo

Lisa Rabin, associate professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, and two of her former students founded the Culmore Literacy and Popular Education Project in 2007 to reach out to the local Spanish-speaking community.

The program united Mason faculty and students with Tenants and Workers United (TWU), a worker’s rights and social justice organization in Northern Virginia, and the social workers at the Culmore Family Resource Center of Fairfax County. The program initially offered free Spanish and English literacy and popular education courses in the Culmore, Va., community.

As the program continued to grow, Rabin applied for and was awarded a Community Partnership Grant for 2008-09 from the American Studies Association. With this funding, the program added curricula in American studies, grounding Culmore students’ local experiences within the larger history of Latinos and Spanish speakers in the United States.

Although grant funding recently ended, the program’s success encouraged Rabin to forge a relationship with Mason’s Center for Field Studies to sustain the program and offer student teachers training opportunities on a yearly basis.

The first cohort of Mason undergraduate students in the Culmore Literacy and Popular Education field study recently completed training courses in bilingual English as a Second Language and popular education. (A video on the course may be seen here.) Next year, as volunteers or interns, these students will teach classes that provide literacy support to Culmore residents.

“Through the success of the Culmore Literacy and Popular Education Project it was clear that we were making collaborative relationships in the community,” says Rabin. “Although funding for the program ended, I felt that it was important to figure out a way to continue the program without the use of grant money so we could meet the Culmore residents’ desires to continue learning.”

Making a Difference
Catherine Berrouet, a recent Mason graduate who majored in French and Spanish, has taught two, 10-week-long English literacy classes as part of the Culmore Literacy and Popular Education Project.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect when Professor Rabin approached me about teaching an English literacy class, but I did know that I wanted to be a part of helping these individuals feel empowered and achieve their goals,” says Berrouet.

culmoresign3Although she had no prior teaching experience, Berrouet was able to attend training workshops led by a team of Mason professors last summer. The workshops included strategies on teaching heritage language Spanish, English as a Second Language and the history of Latinos in the United States.

Berrouet began the classes by evaluating her students’ knowledge of the English language. With a class of more advanced students in the fall, Berrouet focused on grammar. With her beginner-level students in the spring, she focused on the letters of the alphabet. She provided her students with textbooks and other materials and often assigned homework.

Originally from Haiti, Berrouet notes that although teaching the English language was difficult because it is not her native language, she felt that she could relate more to her students who were also learning the language.

With teaching experience under her belt, Berrouet hopes to obtain a position teaching Spanish and French at the high school level, as well as continue teaching English literacy classes.

A Different Kind of Challenge
Another literacy project facilitated by Rabin’s collaborative relationships in Culmore was a computer literacy class.

Recent Mason graduate Liana Montecinos, a philosophy and Spanish major, began teaching the class twice a week in June and July to day laborers affiliated with TWU.

Recent graduate Liana Montecinos taught computer literacy. Creative Services photo

Recent graduate Liana Montecinos taught her Spanish-speaking students how to read and write in Spanish, as well as computer literacy. Creative Services photo

Montecinos had taught Spanish literacy to young heritage learners of Spanish at the Culmore library as part of an internship this past spring. When that class ended, Montecinos was approached by Rabin and the TWU organizer and offered the position of teaching computer literacy to adults.

“When the position to teach the computer literacy class became available, I was very interested in it,” says Montecinos. “Although I really enjoyed teaching children, I knew that teaching adults would be a different type of challenge.”

While Montecinos conducted the class in Spanish, many of her students were only able to speak the language. Faced with this limitation, Montecinos decided to teach her students how to write and read in Spanish in addition to computer literacy.

In each class, Montecinos taught her students basic skills that helped them in their everyday lives, such as how to use the Internet and e-mail, look for jobs or services, create a flyer for a community event and type a Microsoft Word document.

As homework, Montecinos had her students obtain a library card so they could use a computer at the library to practice typing and access the Internet.

“It was very important to me that my students learn computer skills that will help them in today’s society,” says Montecinos. “Even though for some of them their first encounter with a computer was in this class, they are all very intelligent people and eager to learn. They just haven’t had the proper schooling.”

At the end of the class, Montecinos and her students created a cyber café so they can learn to chat with relatives and friends in their home countries.

Currently working at a nonprofit organization and in Mason’s Early Identification Program, Montecinos hopes to continue teaching the computer literacy class in the fall.

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