BY MARINA STELMACK, HG 2016
Since I was a little girl, I have assisted my γιαγιά and παπού with their acquisition of the English language, while they simultaneously taught me how to read, write, and speak in Greek. As my grandparents learned English, and while I learned Greek, I not only witnessed our successes, but I also noticed our linguistic struggles. Our struggles, especially, elicited a spark and calling within me to help others learn English.
A month before I left for Heritage Greece, I was afforded the opportunity to do classroom observations at the Hazleton Area Middle School in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. In recent years, big corporations, such as Amazon, have opened warehouses in Hazleton, which has caused many job-seekers of different racial and ethnic backgrounds to move into the area. Prior to this, Hazleton was not a place of great diversity; however, today the Hazleton Area School District documents over 1,500 English language learners, also known as ELLs.
I was beyond excited when I found out that I would be observing in both seventh and eighth grade classrooms during my two weeks in Hazleton. Because I am an English Education major with an ESL Certificate, I was able to observe in both literature classes and in ESL (English as a Second Language) classrooms.
I instantly noticed that the ESL classrooms were a lot different than the literature classrooms. From the moment I walked into the ESL classrooms, I noticed and felt a strong sense of community amongst the students.
This sense of community instantly reminded me of the strong sense of community that my family and I have felt within the Greek community in our hometown. The students in the classroom were helping one another, laughing and joking around, and conversing with each other; it reminded me of the Greek food festivals held at my church and coffee hour after church on Sundays. What was interesting, though, was that not one of these students were speaking English – they were all speaking Spanish.
I was intimidated, to say the least. Although I had taken Spanish in high school, I am far from a Spanish speaker, even at a conversational level. I was worried that I would not connect with these students due to what seemed to be a language barrier. In this moment, I imagined how my γιαγιά and παπού must have felt coming to a new country without knowing any English at all; I was afraid.
However, the “language barrier” I was so worried about actually turned out to be more of a language bridge. While working with the students, I came to notice that we always found a way to meet each other halfway and then, together, get to the other end of an issue. When the students and I had difficulties understanding one another, we would make accommodations to assist each other. Although it was difficult, I was able to help effectively the students I was working with, and I even learned some Spanish in the process. Not only did I help them, but they helped me, too. The students I worked with allowed me to receive real-world experience, which taught me more than any college language class I have ever taken.
Two months after this experience, I was sitting in a Greek language class at the American College of Greece. Once again, I found myself struggling to speak and understand a language that was not my first. However, the professor accommodated me and made what we were learning meaningful to me, just as I tried to do with the students in Hazleton.
These experiences made me fall deeper in love with both language learning and language teaching. While sitting in class at The American College of Greece, I couldn’t help but picture myself teaching English in Greece, one day.