Guide helps migrants communicate in Vt.
ADDISON COUNTY — When Kathryn Kramer began teaching English to migrant farm laborers in Vermont, she quickly realized that everything she’d learned about English as a second language (ESL) needed to be revamped for working with Vermont’s population of Spanish-speaking farmworkers, most of whom work in the dairy industry.
Generic lessons about recent trips to the movie theater and going out to eat just didn’t make sense, Kramer realized.
“I found that I was spending a huge amount of time making materials,” she said. “There are tons of textbooks for teaching ESL, but nothing that’s really appropriate for this population. … These are people who hardly ever leave the farm.”
So Kramer, a writing professor at Middlebury College, along with student research assistant Sarah Ashby, set to work on a project. If they couldn’t find the tools they needed to teach ESL in Vermont, they reasoned, they’d just have to make them themselves.
That work culminated in the release of “Welcome to Vermont: English for Working and Living,” a curriculum and collection of teaching resources Kramer and Ashby devised and posted online in May. The curriculum includes a 160-page lesson, appendix and student workbook; a teacher’s guide; and a guide devised specifically for the Middlebury College teachers and tutors who volunteer with migrant farmworkers.
Kramer has volunteered with migrant workers for the last two or three years. She began volunteering after taking a Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certificate program in Barcelona, Spain. She returned to her home in Vermont, and began looking around for ways to practice her Spanish language skills and put her TESOL training to use.
Volunteering with the migrant workers population was a natural fit. Around 500 Mexican farm workers are estimated to live and work on dairy farms in Addison County, and the statewide Vermont dairies employ as many as 2,000 foreign-born workers.
Kramer and Ashby tried to design a textbook that would work for this population.
“We tried to orient every lesson around actual conversations that these guys and women would actually have in the context in which they live,” Kramer said.
Early lessons focus on the basics — such as introductions — but even those are colored by the Vermont context. The page that asks, “Where are you from?” includes maps of both Mexico and Vermont.
As students progress, they’re taught how to describe their feelings, parts of the body, expressing time, and where they live. Lessons include mock trips to the supermarket, with graphics like a sample receipt from Shaw’s grocery store, as well as conversations at the post office or doctor’s office.
Lessons on living in the United States tackle the cultural differences that farm workers might notice between Mexico and here and facts about this country’s geography and government.
The appendix includes lists of words, as well as a dictionary of useful farm vocabulary, though Kramer noted that those are often the first words in English that some Mexican farm workers learn.
Another useful feature is a transliterated conversation with a 911 operator that walks the Spanish-speaking caller through how he or she should report an emergency. The transliteration means that even someone who doesn’t know how to pronounce English might be able to sound out important words, Kramer said.
Kramer also said that she and Ashby tried to keep the textbook and each lesson as pared down, and simple, as possible. Too often language textbooks are busy and overwhelming, she said; for a population putting in long hours on the farm, that could be exhausting.
She also hopes the guides will be useful for the student volunteers who teach English to migrant workers. In many cases these students have very little training in ESL, though Kramer was unconcerned about that.
“I think that training is great, but I also think that the most important thing is wanting to help community, and wanting to help other people communicate. With that you can go a long way,” she said.
“Welcome to Vermont: English for Working and Living” is available online to download free of cost at http://shawnashapiro.com/juntos/.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].