After serving her fellow sisters as a member of the congregation’s Leadership team for eight years, Sister Roberta Smith was open to a new ministry. When a friend approached her about teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to adults, she agreed.
“There is a Hispanic population down in the Bronx that needs help with English language skills,” she says. I’m teaching level 2, which is great because these are people who have some facility with the English language.”
Her class of 12 range in age from their 20s to their 50s and they come from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Ecuador and Guatemala. They spend two hours working with Sister Roberta on vocabulary, grammar and comprehension on one day, then practice conversation with another teacher the next day.
Sister Roberta keeps the class interactive and fun. One lesson dealt with food, recipes and grocery shopping which led to a conversation about coffee and breakfast. “Several days later one woman came in with a special coffee that she makes and the woman from Ecuador brought in special rolls that they make there. So, there we were, having breakfast buns and coffee!” she says. In another class, she had the class talk about lunch using full sentences when one student brought up that she had heard coworkers talk about brunch. Sister wrote ‘lunch’ and ‘brunch’ on the board and had students explain the difference to each other.
“I try to get them to think in English,” she says. “We have a neat little newspaper that I use to teach them to read in English. I’m not fluent in Spanish but I don’t have to be. I really am here to get them to learn English.”
She says that some students understand English but find it difficult to express themselves “I think some just want to have the ability to deal with their children’s school,” she says. “I know that they understand but it’s often trying to get it out in English. Others are active in their churches; they want to have some facility to be bilingual in their neighborhoods and in stores. They are amazing in the sense that they are coming in and trying to understand this language which is no simple thing.”