Reading, writing, and speaking English go better with tea at St. Paul’s Skyline Tower

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It is 10:30 am on a Thursday morning and the eleven adult students in the Level 1 and 2 adult English class at Skyline Tower are making tea. Muhubo, seated near the front of the class and wearing wire-rimmed glasses, shakes back the sleeves of her bright orange hijab to unwrap a yellow Lipton tea bag. Udbi, seated next to her, stirs one, two, three spoonfuls of sugar into her cup of hot brew. As other students filter back into the classroom after their break, they stop by the tray of ceramic mugs before taking their seats.

“It is something of a ritual,” said English teacher Joe McMorrow. “We take our tea very seriously here.”

The students at Skyline Tower take their English education even more seriously.

For thirteen years now, Skyline Tower, an affordable living complex run by the non-profit CommonBond Communities has offered free classes and services to residents in their “Advantage Center,” located in a two-story building attached to the apartment building. Staff and volunteers at the Advantage Center provide pre-kindergarten services, after-school programs for children and teens and tutoring help for youth and adult learners. On Thursday evenings, students can practice speaking English in the informal “Conversation Group” meetings (with tea served, of course). From Monday to Thursday, the Center offers formal English classes for adult learners in the morning and afternoons.

The story behind the story

by Kate Spencer

I have been volunteering for Skyline Tower for two years now as a tutor for homework help sessions for adult learners. I was interested to learn more about the programs offered at the Advantage Center through researching and reporting for this article.

Interviewing the students for this article was perhaps the most noteworthy part of the process. With Advantage Center employee Fartun Issa working as an interpreter, I spoke with the entire Thursday morning class in a group interview. The students were very open in answering my questions about their class and experiences in learning English. Fartun was a very skilled interpreter, and she made the process much easier.

Unfortunately, the staff member who speaks Oromo, the language two Ethiopian students speak, was not on hand for the interview. Still, I was able to speak with these students in English, and got some sense of how they view their education at Skyline Tower. All of the quoted words from students in the article below come from this group interview.

These classes are taught by professional instructors like McMorrow, an employee for the Hmong American Partnership, a non-profit organization that provides social and educational services for the Twin Cities immigrant and refugee population.

McMorrow began teaching at Skyline this year through a partnership between HAP and CommonBond started in December 2012. Students in his morning classes learn through formal instruction, in-class exercises, and homework assignments. On a recent Thursday, the students were on their “housing” unit, learning about vocabulary that related to renting, buying and keeping their homes maintained. The class also takes a monthly assessment exam to assess student’s progress. The test results help teachers decide what to teach and scores are an important factor in whether HAP and CommonBond receive funding for student contact hours.

Speaking through an interpreter, the students in the Thursday morning class said that they appreciated having this level of instruction so close to home. The proximity makes it easier to learn a very difficult language.

“It is good to have the class in the building,” said Ali, who is from Somalia and started in the Level 1 English class this year. “We don’t have cars, we don’t know how to drive. We don’t have to travel to take class here.”

“We can stay out of the cold!” chimed in Udbi, who also hails from Somalia and has been in the morning class for more than a year.

Xuan, a Vietnamese-American who joined the class last month, said that he appreciates that the class is held in the morning and fits with his evenings work schedule.

Elder Literacy Initiative

Thanks to CommonBond’s new Elder Literacy Initiative, students like Muhubo and Ali have even more opportunity to learn English tailored especially for them.

Lisa Vogl, who coordinates Adult English Learning Programs at CommonBond, created the Elder Literacy Initiative this past year in collaboration with the Minnesota Literacy Council.

Vogl explained that she developed the Elder Literacy Initiative once she realized that many Skyline residents older than age 65 were not getting the most out of their English classes.

For starters, Vogl noticed that most adult ESL classes use curriculum designed for young to middle-aged parents with children — the stories students read center around characters of this demographic, and the pictures in classroom materials feature middle-aged individuals. Classes teach the vocabulary needed for job interviews, GED tests, and driving exams. These topics are less relevant to elders, and Vogl explained that relevancy to real life is an important key to motivating students, especially adult learners.

The curriculum materials for Skyline’s Elder Literacy Initiative use examples from real life, such as how to call building managers when things go wrong in Skyline’s apartments. (Photo by Kate Spencer)

Another big issue is that many elders at Skyline are pre-literate, which means that they have not learned how to read or write in their first language. For most residents, that language is Somali, Amharic, or Oromo, the three languages spoken in the East African countries of Somalia and Ethiopia. This makes learning how to read and write in English even more difficult.

“Elder students are learning the whole concept that squiggles and lines on paper mean something and, at the same time, having to match those squiggles with completely foreign sounds,” Vogl explained. For this reason the best way to teach many of the elders at Skyline how to read is to use a pre-literate curriculum.

Vogl worked with the Minnesota Literacy Council to develop a curriculum for elder students, and she is introducing it at Skyline and at CommonBond’s Westminster Place and Cathedral Hill apartment sites.

The learning materials rely heavily on alphabetics, phonemics, and useful everyday vocabulary, a staple of pre-literate tutoring. Activities center around everyday experiences of elders living in the community and the real-life examples include reading medicine labels, filing a maintenance problem with Skyline’s building managers and filling out doctor’s forms.

Lisa Vogl, Coordinator of Adult English Learning Programs at Skyline Tower, makes copies of curriculum materials for the Elder Literacy Initiative, a project she developed in collaboration with the Minnesota Literacy Foundation. (Photo by Kate Spencer)

Vogl hopes that this effort will help her elder students to become motivated and engaged in their learning. The brand-new project is “truly grass roots,” Vogl said. Preliminary survey responses from elders suggest that they are responding to the new learning materials, and even suggesting ideas for new lesson plans.

“Some elders have expressed interest in learning more about starting up and running their own businesses, which is not what you might expect from those older than 65,” Vogl said. “I certainly had the stereotype that all people of that age bracket are ready to retire. But in Somalia or Ethiopia, many elders would still be running a business, and they would like to try to do so here.”

Sirad, a Somali elder who has been taking classes at the Advantage Center for a year, sees college in her future.

“I want to take this class to finish and get to higher education,” Sirad said. “I would want to study teaching or customer service.”

Sirad tells her friends about the English classes, and encourages them to stop in and try them out.

“I tell my friend that we have a good teacher and a good class. They don’t have to be nervous about learning the language here. We all help each other out, ” Sirad said.

And she explains that the class is not all serious.

“Yes, I tell them about the tea!” she said with a laugh.

This is one of a number of articles produced by student interns at the TC Daily Planet.


Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.

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