Learning English as a family

Norma, Grethel, Roberto, Melida, Gino

After immigrating to Minnesota from Mexico in 2018, Norma and her family realized they would need to learn English. “It’s needed for everything—in school, for ourselves, to try and get involved with other people. [Without learning English] we won’t be able to talk to anyone else,” Norma shares.

Jessie, Norma’s sister-in-law, was interning at Neighborhood House and introduced Norma to their adult education programs. Shortly after, Norma, her husband, Roberto, and her mother-in-law, Melida all enrolled in English classes.

Her daughter Grethel then joined the preschool program with her cousin Gino, Jessie’s son. Her Early Childhood Teacher, Valerie, says, “When Grethel first started she had an extremely difficult time being away from her mother.” But she soon formed a connection with a Spanish-speaking teacher, Danielle. Staff rearranged their schedules so that Danielle could be with Grethel each day in class for a week or two. “It worked,” says Valerie. “Grethel felt comfortable and safe and was then able to develop positive relationships with the other teachers as well.”

“She didn’t speak English when she started class, but she was very eager to learn, and learned quickly,” says Parent and Early Childhood Education Program Manager Amanda. “She liked to be silly and laughed a lot.”

Unfortunately, Norma and her family faced obstacles when it came to being able to attend classes. “It is very difficult for us when there is snow because we don’t have transportation,” Norma says. “So we would go on the bus.” Like anyone who’s lived through at least one winter in Minnesota would know, trekking to a bus stop after a snowfall can be difficult. Add in bringing your young daughter and newborn in a stroller and you get an even more challenging walk.

But Norma was dedicated to learning English and the family continued attending classes.

“She had a baby a year or two ago and she kept attending English classes even after giving birth,” says Eva, an English teacher at Neighborhood House. “That shows her dedication to learning English.”

“When I used to take my baby … it was easy because he was just in the stroller,” Norma explains. “Once he started walking it was very difficult for me to have him in a single place,” she laughs.

When COVID-19 hit, life for Norma, Grethel, Roberto, Gino, and Melida changed.

Norma and Roberto worked for a cleaning company, but after the pandemic started they had their hours cut and eventually only Roberto was able to stay employed.

The family began using the food market at Neighborhood House to make ends meet. “[The pandemic] complicated our situation … There have been times when they have reduced our pay, or we’ve had to reduce our expenses,” says Norma. “By helping with the food and such it is a lot of help.”

Norma and Melida’s English classes have also been moved online due to the pandemic, but Norma says this has been a good shift. “For me on one hand, it has been better to take the online classes. Because like I told you, I’m better able to look after my kids so it’s better since I am home. Sometimes it gets complicated because I have to tend to everything, but in a certain way, it has been better for me to take the classes this way because it allows me to be in control of everything.”

Grethel and Gino had since graduated PECE. After participating in the in-person summer camp program in 2019, Grethel joined the virtual summer camp program in 2020 where she learned about STEM, arts, and literacy through fun activities delivered to her home each week.

Grethel also joined the youth literacy program this year. Youth Literacy Instructor Sara says, “Grethel is the sweetest ever. She listens to me, is very receptive, and wants to learn. She is very empathetic and loves telling stories as well as listening to them. Over the summer, she made me a bracelet and we elbow-fived.”

In a pre-COVID world, Youth Literacy Instructor Sara would meet with students each day at their school for a half hour to work on literacy. During the pandemic with schools closed, Sara is providing online sessions instead either before or after school.

But after a whole day doing schoolwork on a school-supplied tablet, Grethel is burned out. Even more, because English is her second language and because she reads below grade level, online learning has been particularly challenging and tiring.

“For my daughter things have gotten complicated because like with every child, she doesn’t pay attention, she’s easily distracted, so I feel that online classes do not work for her,” Norma explains. “We try to be on the lookout so she pays attention and try to constantly be with her for that reason … but sometimes [Grethel’s classes] and my classes are at the same time … In reality, it is very difficult for me.”

Further, it can be harder to follow along in a virtual lesson than an in-person class, especially for students who speak English as a second language. “It is difficult for me to help her because I can’t explain it to her because I understand two or three words but not 100% of the lecture,” Norma shares. “So, it has been very difficult for us to be able to help her with her homework.”

Norma says that Sara’s lessons have helped Grethel improve her literacy. “I feel she has improved a lot. She’s able to understand and follow along more [during school]. Even if she still gets lost at times.”

Although it’s been challenging, Grethel’s literacy has continued to improve during the pandemic because she’s getting the extra support she needs and she’s working hard to keep learning. When Grethel first started taking lessons with Sara, her literacy was at level 1. Now she’s at level 15!

Another thing that’s helped Grethel and her mom improve their English is the Mobile Library. Staff deliver personalized book choices every two weeks to participants around the St. Paul area. After a day of online learning for both mom and daughter, reading a book is a nice break from the screen.

When it comes to Neighborhood House, Norma says, “It’s a good [way] to learn English. It’s a good opportunity for people [to get help] if they don’t know anything, like where to go if they have a situation where they don’t have anything to eat or cover the cost of something.”

The family plans to continue using Neighborhood House programs, during and after the pandemic, to keep learning English so that they can participate more fully in their community. And Grethel is looking forward to the day when school and Neighborhood House classes switch back to in-person so she can hug her friends and teacher Sara again.