Earlier this summer, after earning my certificate for teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), I was looking for a way to utilize my newly-developed teaching skills. An ESL class friend connected me to the Refuge Handicrafts program. I began volunteering in August.
At first, I was there once a week. Now I am there every Monday and Thursday. The classes, each about two hours long, start with an English-language lesson. Student/clients, recently arrived refugee women with limited near-term job opportunities, read a short passage and then work on passage-related worksheets.
My students vary in their levels of literacy, making for interesting lesson plans! Some students understand most of the passage and just need me to explain a few words; others need me to help them with sentence and paragraph comprehension.
Students who finish first move on to a conversation task, so that they can learn how to speak to each other. While reading and writing are challenging, speaking a new foreign language - English, in this case - is where the real challenge lies for my students.
When most of the students have completed their English lesson, program director Becky Roy starts them on their craft project for the day.
Through the program, the women learn to sew, both by hand and on machines. Some recent projects have involved making Halloween wreathes and sewing Christmas ornaments and stockings. Some of the ladies take home knitting projects and work on scarves and hats at home.
Working on craft projects is great for practicing English-language skills. My students get to practice words like left, right, up, down, circle, square, plus their colors. While knitting, they have the chance to practice numbers and counting, all while having fun!
Occasionally, our classes will go on field trips to Nashville-area locations. (The trips broaden their understanding of what living in Nashville is all about and provides them with "real world" opportunities to use their new English speaking and reading skills.)
One trip was to a local library to sign up for library cards. We also took them to Cheekwood Botanical Gardens, Ellington Agricultural Center, and Frist Center for the Visual Arts. These attractions were great places to have English lessons and to check out arts and other craft projects.
At the Frist, my students really came alive. We first looked at the Kandinsky paintings exhibit and then went upstairs to the Martin ArtQuest Gallery. In ArtQuest, visitors can create their own art at various stations for drawing, painting, building statues, and creating other types of masterpieces. My students loved it!
Admittedly, there is a cultural divide between my students and I that, at times, makes it hard to fully connect with each other. When we went to the Frist, though, I realized that art can be a universal experience.
The women were able to express themselves without having to cross the barrier of language. I finally realized what it really meant to use mediums like art in teaching as a way to allow students to experience self-expression. This is why I think projects like the Refugee Handicraft Program are important...they integrate learning and self-expression.
[NOTE: Items produced by the Refuge Handicrafts women are sold from time to time at various fairs and market places across the area. All sales go directly to the women to aid in the support of their families. For information about upcoming craft sales, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or go to https://www.facebook.com/refugehandicrafts or http://www.cctenn.org/events.cfm.]