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Carla Cerino, who teaches academic writing and reading to adult English as a second language learners through ERACE, inspires her students with goals including having their stories published in a national magazine, The Change Agent. In March, five of Cerino’s students had their stories published. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
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Every semester, adult students from across the globe take Carla Cerino’s class to learn English academic reading and writing skills, but by the time they leave, they always manage to teach Carla new lessons about the human spirit.
For three years, Carla, an adult education English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, has taught Academic Reading and Writing to adults in the East Shore Region Adult & Continuing Education (ERACE)/ESL classroom at Branford High School (BHS).
“Academic writing is kind of its own dialect. Even native speakers have to learn it as a separate skill,” Carla says. “The program gets every level of education you can imagine, from very little formal education to medical doctors and PhDs. Most of them choose it if they’re interested in working on their formal writing; some students want to do a high school completion program and the writing part is a challenge; [and] some need to do some writing for work. A lot of students just want to be able to help their children with their homework.”
Offered by ERACE, the class is free and serves residents in the towns of Branford, Clinton, Guilford, and North Branford. Students in a recent class hailed from Peru, Egypt, and Brazil and the continent of Africa.
“I get to travel around the world every week without leaving Connecticut,” says Carla. “I learn so much, and not just about culture and language. I learn about the lives of my students. That’s what’s really nice about adult education. You’re peers, in a way, and you can really learn from each other. That’s my favorite part, and I find these students to be very energizing and inspiring.”
Carla’s not the only one inspired by what her students have to share. In March, five of six students who took her fall 2018 semester class had stories they’d written in English published in The Change Agent. The quarterly magazine is a national adult social justice/education publication produced through the New England Literacy Resource Center.
Carla, who has been teaching ESL with ERACE since 2010, learned about the magazine during a professional development session.
“I’m sure you’ve heard of STEM, which encourages students think of themselves as scientists or engineers or mathematicians. I really want my students to think of themselves as writers,” says Carla. “Even if you’re not published, you’re writing with a purpose. So I encourage them all to submit for publication, but I don’t require it. Most of them do, and they get paid $50 if they are selected.”
The Change Agent also builds lesson plans for teachers to use with its monthly publication at changeagent.nelrc.org. Carla has had other students’ work appear in the magazine through the years, as well. She can’t say enough about how proud she is of her students’ willingness to write for such a huge audience.
Finding Their Voices
“I’m always amazed, because I think it’s a huge risk to put your writing out there, no matter who you are,” says Carla. “And to put your writing out there in a second language is truly brave.”
The theme of the March 2019 issue is indigenous peoples.
“It was a good theme because it allowed them to be a little more journalistic in some cases, a little bit more personal,” says Carla. “The Latin American students had an easy time speaking about indigenous populations. One student wrote about her tribe from Ghana. Other students talked about historical populations. One wrote about ‘Why Call Them Indians?’ because The Change Agent asked that someone write about [Native Americans] that for this issue, and she was able to do that.”
Written by an Egyptian mother of two, “Why Call Them ‘Indians?” explains Christopher Columbus’s blanket naming of indigenous people he encountered in a place he thought was the Indies. She writes in her conclusion, “we should call indigenous people by the name of their tribe. We should study the indigenous traditions and history. They are very diverse, and they are interesting and valuable for everyone. We could learn a lot from them.”
Another young mom in the class, in the area with her husband while he completes post-doctoral studies at Yale, wrote about indigenous people fighting for their rights in her native country of Brazil, writing, “They are our history. We have a lot to learn from them. Our past cannot be lost.”
Another student, from Ghana, West Africa, wrote an article about her indigenous people, titled, “Fierce Fighters, Resilient People: My Tribe is Ashanti.” A student from Peru wrote about the Chasquis, ancient indigenous relay runners who delivered “mail” as quipus (pieces of colored string tied in knots; the runners could translate messages based on the colors and knots).
Carla says one of the best rewards her students receive by submitting articles to the magazine is that its editor truly values every piece of writing.
“Cynthia Peters, the editor, answers each student individually, whether they’re accepted [for publication] or not. And she makes a very specific reference to their article, so you know that she’s paid attention and read each one carefully,” says Carla. “She makes it a welcoming and not-scary process to submit to a publication for your first time. She really validates their work—and it is great work.”
Carla and all of the ERACE ESL teachers and staff also work to create a welcoming atmosphere for all adult students in the ESL program.
“We work a lot—our classes are 2 ½ hours long—but we also have fun,” says Carla. “We have a fall feast around Thanksgiving, and everyone brings food from native countries. The teachers also help prepare students to present something [they’ve learned] and their families come. We also have an end of the year celebration where we share pictures and accomplishments of our students. We do a lot of programs with the Blackstone Library, so we share that, too.”
ERACE also offers education and enrichment classes in Clinton, but its ESL Academic Reading & Writing program only takes place in Branford. Carla thanks Branford Public Schools for creating an ESL classroom space at the high school. She’s also grateful for tech support that includes 20 laptops and 20 iPads used by students in the classroom.
“We are so appreciative that we have been so welcomed at the high school and have this facility. I also really want to thank all of the superintendents of all of the different districts making up our towns. These adult students are their students, from their towns. So they are invested in their success, as well,” says Carla.
A resident of Old Saybrook, Carla earned her master’s degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) at Southern Connecticut State University. She’s fluent in Spanish and Italian, and lived the immigrant experience herself as a teacher in Italy (she now has a dual citizenship). Italy is also where met her husband, Max Trentini.
“We met in Italy and moved here when we married, so I really saw the immigrant experience with my own eyes,” she says. “Just functioning in another culture is as overwhelming as learning a second language.”
The couple are raising their son, Marco, now seven, in a bilingual household.
Carla also teaches native and non-native English speakers at Middlesex Community college, in an introduction to composition English class.
She says a key to learning another language is listening—and not getting thrown by a bit of slang.
“A really hard thing when you’re speaking a second language, is sometimes you need a minute to think. Even if you think you’re really fluent, even though you know all those words, a lot of times, you’re not hearing them the way you’ve read them, the way you’ve studied them. You’re never going to be in a vacuum like one of those language tapes,” she says. “So if someone says, ‘I’m gonna go,” it throws you—it’s that kind of reduced pronunciation that creates a problem.”
And, if you find yourself speaking to someone who may not speak English fluently, take your time, she advises.
“My advice to someone who’s talking to a non-native speaker is to have a little more patience. Try repeating what you say. Just give them a minute—they’ll get it,” says Carla. “This nation was built by immigrants. That’s what’s really inspiring, to me. It’s inspiring that they put themselves out there. It fills my heart.”
For more information on ERACE programs, visit www.erace-adulted.org.
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