Project SHINE: Critical Reflection
By Wendy Look
May 12, 2008
When I decided to do Project Shine, I did not realize that I was becoming a part of something that would forever change my outlook on refugees. I have lived in America for the past eighteen years of my life and have never once considered how extremely hard it is to learn the English language. Although I am Asian-American, I grew up speaking English as my primary language and did not struggle with the basics. I had also done well in the English portion of my classes when I was in school. Speaking the Chinese language, however, has always been a difficulty for me since it was a language I slowly acquired through interaction with my family, friends, and Chinese school. Furthermore, I did not wish to learn Chinese because it required me to go to school an extra day of the week. With regards to Project Shine, I feel I can relate more to the refugees because just as they struggle learning English, so do I struggle learning Cantonese, the Chinese language. At the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, I initially worked with the citizenship class for the first half of the school semester and then transferred over to work with the intermediate level class because I had scheduling conflicts. Those in the citizenship class had lived in the United States for more than fifteen years and knew only broken English phrases and words. Refugees were taking the class to prepare for the U.S. citizenship test but also to improve what English they knew. In the intermediate English level class, students had recently moved to the U.S. and could only speak little English. Compared to the beginner's and advanced level classes, however, the intermediate level class was for the group of people who knew a fair amount of English vocabulary words and could speak form proper English phrases. My interaction with these two classes varied in many ways with regards to the stuents' learning ability, physical appearances, and cooperation in learning English. Not only were the classes a learning experience for the refugees but also a learning experience for me.
When I first started out in the citizenship class, factors such as my position and the refugees' cultural background prevented me from forming a connection with them. In their eyes, I looked like a female teenager dressed in casual clothing. Even though I was introduced to them as a Hamilton College student, it still did not change the fact that I was younger than they were by more than twenty years. I had no background knowledge as a teacher or any license to prove I was an acceptable teacher. I felt I was constantly compared to their main teacher in terms of teaching methods and appearances. Although I still do not have an idea about what they thought of me as their teacher, it was intimidating for me to teach them and prevented me from being fully able to describe to them certain words in English. I struggled each week helping them work on exercises and questions to prepare for their citizenship test because I was afraid they would refuse my help.
In addition to my status as a student, I was also considering the refugees' culture and customs that differ from the American customs and affected the way I viewed the students. I did not want to disrespect them in any way without realizing it and that made it difficult for me to explain certain topics to them. Often times, when they spoke using their broken English, I was unsure whether they were asking questions or felt insulted by the way I had spoken. Their facial expressions seemed to support my latter conclusion although it may have been their way of showing that they did not understand. For example, when Sofia, a Polish refugee, would say "I'm not understanding", I would hesitate to repeat my explanation because her face would grow confused or seemingly angry. This, in effect, would make me question myself about whether my explanation was correct or if I had used the wrong words to describe another word or phrase. By the third week, however, I grew accustomed to the students' responses to my questions and had a better grasp on how to teach the students more effectively. Sofia's angry expressions was her way of showing teachers that she was confused but that she was still interested in improving her English.
Students in the citizenship class, including Sofia, were all willing come to the Refugee Center and learn how to better their English. While their main intention was to pass the U.S. citizenship test, this, in no way, meant that they had no desire to socialize with others. When I worked with students one on one, they were eager to share their stories of how they came to be where they are now. They were also interested to hear my story since I was a college student who devoted time each week to communicate with them. For example, they asked me about my ethnic background, where I was born, and my family. Similar to how I wanted to learn more about them, they were also interested in learning about me. My weeks with the citizenship class seemed to move so quickly that I did not realize until my last day with them that I would not be able to spend any more time with them. I had other obligations which required my attention at the same time the class was held. It was regrettable that I was unable to continue working with the class but I appreciated their tentativeness in learning English and the experience with them.
When I switched to teaching the intermediate class, I had the same problem opening up to the students although it was more difficult because their learning ability was more limited compared to those in the citizenship class. They had just recently arrived in the U.S. several months ago and were learning sentence structure patterns, vocabulary words, and counting methods for all kinds of objects. I had to practice word drills with constant repetitions of every word I spoke so that they could be better reminded of everything I was teaching. For example, I would have to repeat words such as the names of fruits and ask them to name and pick out the fruits that best fitted my description of them. Although there were students such as Mimi Che and Laith who had a more advanced knowledge of the English vocabulary, they still could not form proper sentences with what they knew. It was a different type of challenge compared to the citizenship class because I had to make sure to use basic words to interact with them and use all sorts of visual aid such as hand motions and pictures to further explain subjects. However, the class as a whole progressed well and each time I came in, the students seemed to know more than they did the week before.
On another note, the students had less skill in English but they seemed more cooperative with me as a teacher than the students in the citizenship class were. They were more likely to follow my instructions because they have no prior knowledge of English and are learning from the beginning. They also seemed to take my comments more constructively and did not question me in any way. If I had corrected students in the citizenship class on something they thought they knew prior to the class, they would have questioned my comments and tried proving their answers correct using what little knowledge they acquired after living here. With these students, they had learned to accept what was told to them by the teachers and friends because they have no pre-existing assumptions or beliefs about the English language and the American culture and customs.
Furthermore, I also felt more comfortable with the students in the intermediate level class because a majority of them looked my age even though they were actually older and was of Asian descent. In contrast, the students in the citizenship class looked their age. These people in the intermediate class were usually refugees from Burma who had just recently immigrated to the United States. When I interacted with them, I felt I could be more myself around the refugees. I believe the refugees also felt the same way because they seemed more eager to get to know me on a personal level (one of them even asked for my phone number!). It seemed easier to express my opinions and act natural since they appeared close to my age and looked similar to me.
This similarity in appearance, however, also made me feel that I had less of an authoritative figure. I seemed to blend in well with the refugees and when I would walk in to the Refugee Center, I felt that I was regarded as a refugee by everyone around me. Although I wanted to be a teacher to the intermediate level class, the refugees may not have viewed me in that way even though they would call me "teacher". I felt judged by my physical appearances many times to the other refugees who did not know me because to them, I may have looked Burmese. I did not fit their image of a typical teacher because all the teachers at the Refugee Center were Caucasian.
On another subject, I noticed a difference in the number of students present in both classes. The citizenship class had as many as nine people while the intermediate level class had as many as 18 students. When I had spoken with a refugee in the citizenship class, she mentioned to me that she works more than ten hours a day everyday and still tries to find the time to come to the Refugee Center to study for the citizenship test. I realized then that people who have lived in the U.S. for a long period of time are not able to attain their permanent U.S. citizenship license because they have adapted well into their lifestyle and have no time to improve their English. Those who recently come in to the U.S., however, may be more likely to learn English at a steady pace and lead a stable life in the future because they are learning to adapt to the American culture while learning English concurrently. This does not change the fact that both the refugees who have lived in the U.S. for many years and those who have moved here months ago are still struggling everyday to learn more about the country they are living in now. Through the citizenship class and the intermediate level class, I was able to have a better grasp of the difficulties the refugees have to go through and to appreciate the benefits of having been born into this country.
I have also become more aware of different cultures and customs because many refugees who come to the Refugee Center immigrate from a variety of nations. I once sat in a guest speaker, Tha Dah Paw, who was a refugee from Thailand and spoke the same dialect as many of the Burmese refugees in the class. She showed the class clothing from her country and explained about her culture. For example, she mentioned she was a Karen, a group of people located in the Union of Burma, and that only married women could wear specific dress outfits that were handmade and designed. As I listened to Tha Da Paw speak, I grew to appreciate the Karen people because they had worked industriously to make their own clothes, grow their own food, and still take care of the children and household. By comparing the Karen's lifestyle in Burma to mine in the U.S., I realized that there are many things such as electronics that most of us Americans take for granted. We depend heavily on manufactured products and are not accustomed to getting something through hard labor. This self-realization is one the major results of participating in Project Shine that I am grateful for. It seemed to me that this trivial truth was something not many people living in the U.S. knew about.
People today take many things for granted because they do not realize that others in other countries may be struggling to obtain the same things. Project Shine helps to bring awareness to students and volunteers by giving them a chance to teach refugees English and allowing them to interact closely with them. When I signed up to be a part of this initiative outreach, I was under the impression that I was going to teach them English structurally with little personal interaction to the refugees. However, that was not the case since I had to come up with my own ways of teaching a subject and was also able to spend time with the refugees by having everyday conversations with them. The lessons were focused around any way the students could have a more developed understanding of the English language along with the American culture and customs. From the perspective of a teacher and a college student, I was able to understand the refugees because I knew what methods to use so that I could better their understanding of the English language and the American culture. I have learned a great deal about refugees and different cultures because of Project Shine and would sincerely like to continue helping in the future.