One of the libraries I work at serves a very international community. People come from all over the world to work in the area, and often bring along their significant others, or mothers, or children, etc. In some cases, the person working is still learning English, and is looking for an opportunity to practice speaking and learning, especially non-work related conversation and American culture. In some cases, the person working has a firm grasp of English, and opportunity to practice at work every day, but their family members do not.
So having an ESL Conversation Club at our library was kind of a no-brainer. Patrons even asked for it! If multiple patrons are making a point of getting ahold of staff members in order to ask for a program, well, the library should probably deliver.
I started ours by finding a local TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) student to help us. As his practicum project, our TESOL student put together “lesson plans” for the first few meetings, and drafted the flyer for us. He helped us publicize by dropping off flyers at the adult school, and by posting them around town. We also publicized with flyers in the library (including the ESL section), a notice on our website, an event on our FaceBook page, and by posting to the local online paper (the Patch), the Chamber of Commerce, Neighborhood Associations, and a site called ZEvents, which populates the calendars of several local papers.
We’ve now had about three months of ESL Conversation Club.
We meet for one hour, from 5 to 6 PM, with about 15 minutes of spill over either side. We set up the room with six tables, each with six chairs. Generally, attendees choose a table at the beginning, and stay there throughout the meeting. The tables and chairs are not in neat rows – they are higgeldy-piggeldy around the room, to encourage a more casual, conversational atmosphere. We have water available, and treats for some of the meetings (the first few especially). We’ve consistently had between 30 and 40 people attend each meeting. We try to have a native English speaker at each table. Our native speakers attend on a drop-in basis, just like non-native speakers. This way, the library provides a no-commitment option for people that are interested in volunteering. We’ve had four native speakers attend very consistently and three or four more infrequently. When needed, library staff, or, for the first couple months, our TESOL volunteer, sit in to provide native speaker help. And in a pinch, a table of ESL speakers can do without a native speaker. The point of the club is more to practice and gain confidence, than it is to learn and perfect language skills.
Each meeting begins with me welcoming everyone and introducing myself. For the first few meetings, our TESOL volunteer put together formal lesson plans, although the activities were not particularly formal. Our TESOL volunteer would describe what the theme or activity was. Each attendee would receive a handout. The themes included countries, food, transportation, and parts of the body. The handouts would have an activity (usually matching or defining), a list of conversation starter questions, and generally some idioms. People would discuss and complete the activities as a table group. Now that we are running the Conversation Club ourselves, I generally put together a packet of a few short news articles, some conversation starter questions, and a description of anything special that we did. For example, for Thanksgiving, I showed a few clips, so I included the link to the YouTube playlist.
It’s been fairly easy for me to pick a focus for each conversation club, because we’ve been right in the center of the holiday season. Explaining and exploring American holidays provides a wealth of things to do. My two favorite meetings have been the one before Thanksgiving, and the one right before Christmas.
For the meeting before Thanksgiving, I put together a packet of articles that included discussion of: the best way to cook a Turkey, Black Friday (versus Cyber Monday), the origin of Thanksgiving, a sunrise ceremony put on by Native Americans on Alcatraz, and travelling on holidays. I also gathered clips on YouTube, including ones from a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, that Friends episode where Joey puts the Turkey on his head, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (I really wanted to show this scene, but decided it would be a bad idea). While we talked to each other, using the conversation starter questions or whatever we were interested in, we made hand turkeys. Then, in the last 20 minutes, we had pumpkin pie and whipped cream. For many attendees, it was the first time they’d tried it. Although I started handing out the pie, the task was quickly appropriated by two of our regular attendees, who had fun learning how to work the whipped cream in a can. It was a nice way to go on break.
My other favorite meeting was our ESL Holiday Cookie Party, which again occurred right before a break. After having the pumpkin pie, participants had talked about bringing their own favorite holiday foods to share. So it seemed natural to throw some sort of potluck (a good vocab word). To simplify things, finger foods (another good bit of vocab) seemed like a good focus. So two weeks before the event I broached the idea at Conversation Club. People seemed interested, so I made flyers to hand out the next week. I didn’t advertise to patrons about the party (other than to people attending the conversation club), but I did invite our library staff.
After so many weeks of sitting at tables together, it was nice to break things up with a mixer-style event, where people walked around and mingled. As attendees came in, I handed out Human Bingo cards, having in many cases to not only explain the human aspect, but to explain what BINGO is. The game provided an excuse for people to interact with each other. They enjoyed it so much, that they neglected to start in on the refreshment table until the last 15 minutes or so of the program. I was blown away by the refreshments, by the way. People brought all kinds of cookies, of course, but we also had rice balls, sushi, and a warm Mexican punch (“No Tequila!” the man assured me as he brought it in). People also brought family members – husbands, mothers, children, etc. For a few attendees, it was their first time. “You picked the best time to show up,” I said, “We’re having a party!”
Although the ESL Conversation Club is a program for adults, we put on the flyer that all ages were welcome. We want to allow people to practice their English with all kinds of people – of all ages as well as all nationalities. We also want to make sure that people who are new to the country, who might have small children and no established network for their care, can still attend the program. We have coloring sheets and crayons ready, and they’ve been used and enjoyed by the couple of kids who usually show up each session. The mixed ages seems to work just fine. Because the nature of the club is a bit chaotic anyway, a child scooting around the corners of the room making airplane noises isn’t particularly disruptive. In fact, children and their antics help people find things to talk about.
For me personally, the Conversation Club has been a great opportunity to have a different kind of conversation with patrons – one that is positive, slow, and encouraging. I have found it incredibly valuable to talk to people without the pressure of the reference desk. I am not helping them find anything, I am not hurrying them along so that I can get to the people waiting behind them, and I’m not addressing any concern. I’m just chatting. Speaking to people who are in the process of learning English – being understood and getting clarification in a way that is welcoming and friendly – is in itself a skill. I am grateful for the opportunity that ESL Conversation Club gives me to practice this.
Our patrons enjoy and value the club. I have seen new friendships develop. We have issued new library cards and been able to highlight some of our ESL materials. Each week, between 30 and 40 people get to come to the library and find positive encouragement. We are helping people to understand American culture, and to make themselves heard clearly.