The Culmore bilingual ESL and popular education project: coming to consciousness on labor, literacy, and community.

Author:Rabin, Lisa M.
Position:English as second language - Essay


In the summer of 2009, nine students majoring in Spanish at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, launched a social activist project in popular education and bilingual ESL in the local Latin American immigrant community of Culmore (Falis Church). After analyzing structural problems in relation to Latino literacy in the United States, including the history of racialized practices against Spanish speakers and the demise of bilingual education across the nation, they taught (with a head instructor) 25 Spanish-speaking adult learners from Culmore, four evenings a week over three weeks time. Four of the university

students were heritage (native) speakers of the language, raised in Argentina, Colombia, and the United States; one was a native speaker of Portuguese; four were native speakers of English. Many were non-traditional university students and worked full-time; some also had families. The 25 ESL learners were primarily from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Bolivia, and worked as day laborers or in the industries of construction, service, or domestic work in Northern Virginia. Several ESL learners spoke indigenous languages of Bolivia and Guatemala as well as Spanish. Most ESL learners had only attained part of a grade school education in their home countries.

This project bridging university and community actors was unique in its departure from traditional methods of community service-learning as volunteerism or career-building that have become very popular in K-12 schools and universities since the outgrowth of U.S. neoliberalism in the 1980s. As I will explain below, I created this program based upon a model that is known as critical service-learning, which leads students to interrogate root causes for community issues, emphasizes the de-individuation of social relations, and pairs students in collaborative relationships with community partners. My program was created with the input and support of a worker's rights organization in Culmore called Tenants and Workers United (TWU). The head instructor of the course, a former graduate student of mine who had written her Master's project on Paulo Freire, taught both the college students and the ESL learners through the paradigm of popular education, stressing literacy as a way of understanding the role of power in shaping one's social world, and its use as a means for individual and collective empowerment.

As I will show, this project was clearly transformative for George Mason students. Several of them even went on to work at TWU as volunteer English teachers or community organizers. On the other hand, ESL learners--who had come to the course with the discrete goal of learning basic English--dealt ambivalently with its political purview. This fault line between the university students and the ESL learners that arose in my program is provocative. It raises several important questions that I explore more fully in this essay. First, how radical can teaching ESL truly be, when learners often have specific, functional goals in mind? Also, is social change realistic for projects our students take up with community partners when the students' presence in a neighborhood is fleeting? These questions are on my mind as my students continue teaching ESL at TWU and in a program they have organized on campus for Sodexo workers. They do not detract from the social gains I believe the Culmore project has provided for students of Spanish, particularly its value in educating students on the centrality of labor and class issues to cultural identity in local Latino communities. I hope this essay and the Culmore project will be a source of reflection for other radical teachers who may be seeking to build activist opportunities for students into their own classroom work.


I teach Latin American literature and cultural studies in the Department of Modern Languages at George Mason. In our program in Spanish, we have sought to make the language and cultures of the Spanish-speaking peoples in the United States a central part of our curriculum. Colleagues in linguistics and literature offer courses in Spanish in the United States, Teaching Spanish in the United States, Spanish for Heritage Learners, and Latino Studies. With the help of sociolinguist colleagues, I have sought to develop activist programs outside of the classroom in which students of Spanish can get to know the local realities of Spanish speakers, including their struggles in obtaining labor, fair housing, and a just education for themselves and their children, and to counteract, if only in a small, local way, structural forms that impede these processes. In 2005 and 2006 I created two activist programs in local schools: an after-school class in Spanish literacy for young heritage (native) learners that George Mason students taught at an elementary school, and a book club for ESL learners that George Mason students led at a middle school. (1) In 2009, I partnered with Tenants and Workers United in Culmore, who wanted Mason students of Spanish to teach a day laborers' course in bilingual ESL and popular education. The summer course of 2009 was the first iteration of this partnership.

I structured all three of these community programs as forms of critical, as opposed to traditional, service learning. Traditional service learning in the United States is understood to be a melding of three educational modules: traditional classroom study in a particular subject or discipline; a community practicum that aligns with the subject; and student reflection on the connections between their academic study and community work (Thomsen 2006). Service learning grew exponentially across the nation in the 1990s in schools and at universities, often subsidized through...

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