Aula Máxima es la biblioteca y también lugar de recreo del espíritu.   - José Vasconcelos



Outreach & Media\ ESL classes can magnetize your library for new users

Class Consciousness: Inviting them for a visit, and maybe to stay

Convert your library into a popular laboratory . . . You must connect your institutions with the educational wants of the people. There should be, in every great community, organized instruction through public libraries . . .
--Herbert Baxter Adams, speaking to the ALA in 1887

Your library--I know this--is a wonderful place. You and its other supporters have made it a charming haven, filled with big ideas and small pleasures. Your first-time visitors walk in wide-eyed; they leave reluctantly, vowing to return. Anyone who comes in once with an open mind feels a sense of belonging, a home. You've seen it happen a thousand times.

So how do you explain the findings of a recent survey of library use in the US--that among households with no children, barely one-third included anyone who visited a library in the past month? And that of those same households almost half had not used a library in the past year?1

Plenty of your neighbors have never been inside your little haven. Many probably believe it has nothing for them. If your community includes people who speak little or no English, you can bet that a good many-quite likely most-share this belief.

Now then, movie fans: In Pleasantville, why was there a long line outside the public library? Simple--it offered people something they wanted and couldn't get anywhere else. Your library can do the same for Spanish-speakers.

Give the people what they want

I'm not referring to collection development, important as that is. Savvy anglers from Izaak Walton to Richard Brautigan have always known that the tastiest bait is wasted if the fish don't see your lure.2 Building an attractive foreign-language collection is a costly and difficult enterprise. And it's a vain one, if the target patrons of that collection never see it. Maybe you have a nice stash of Spanish-language music, books, and videos; that means nothing to people who are reluctant to enter the library in the first place. They won't know what they're missing. Word may filter out to the community eventually, sure--but if you want to attract a lot of Spanish-speakers to your library, offer something they know they want: English classes.

To draw linguistic minorities to your facility, you couldn't do much better than to offer ESL instruction. If you have the space (a good language class is a noisy proposition-lacking a separate classroom, you'd have to do this outside of business hours) and a good teacher, you can quickly be a magnet for a whole new class of people.

It seems natural that public libraries would be lairs of learning, not just for individuals but groups. Yet, in the aforementioned survey how many of those who said they had visited a library, do you think, went there to take a class or meet a tutor? Make a guess.3 Not many libraries, it seems, are doubling as classrooms-and for some, this is a squandered outreach opportunity. [If your library has hosted classes of some kind, I'd like to hear about your experiences. My own position is biased. In my years as an ESL teacher, I did what I could to get students to snuggle up to libraries. I even had the thrill of seeing an English class change a library's character.]

Setting up an ESL class

By forming cooperative arrangements with local colleges who use library facilities as extension sites, many librarians have been able to expand their collections of Adult Basic Education (ABE) materials and even add equipment to their classrooms with the college footing the bill.

Another option in a college town is to call the school's Education or ESL department and offer your room for teachers-in-training who may be eager to design their own practicum. Such a model is unusual but not unheard of. A sympathetic professor with energetic students, infected with the "Hey kids! Let's put on a show!" mentality, can conjure up a good class out of thin air and an empty room.

Alternatively, you could make your classroom available to unaffiliated instructors. In any case, be aware of existing ESL offerings and avoid scheduling classes at competing times--particularly if the 'competition' charges tuition and you don't. Try to ensure that your classes expand the local opportunities to study English.

Once the class is scheduled, you'll want to make sure word gets out. That's out. Don't be content with flyers posted on the shelves of your Spanish collection. Try to reach that large group who will turn out for an English class but wouldn't dare come to a library for its own sake. Ideally your instructor will manage publicity, but remember that this is library outreach, too. See to it that pithy flyers are available in stores, churches, and other ESL classes. That local newspapers get press releases, and broadcasters get PSAs.

What's this class gonna be like?

One of the beauties of adult education is its patent lack of rigidity, the fact that it need not remotely resemble your grade school training. Even that label adult education sounds too restrictive-I've never taught a night class where kids weren't welcome. Some adult students don't have a choice about bringing children-either they can't get a babysitter, or they want that kid sitting right beside them for a sense of security.

Your mileage may vary, so your policies will have to fit your library. It's a given, though, that the classroom should--like the rest of the building--be as comfortable and accommodating as you can manage. Plenty of chairs and hot coffee are a pretty good start. Similarly, your outreach purposes are best served by wide-open enrollment (the open-entry open-exit model, in ABE jargon) that expects learners to show up when they can and drop out when they must. This means more students going through the class, many of whom might just continue to patronize the library once they know where it is, and have felt its aspect change from mysterious and forbidding to warm and welcoming.

Cooperate with the teacher, and expect the same in return. Good educators are always hungry for inspiration--show off the resources you have for instructors and learners. Offer to help incorporate the library itself in lessons. Encourage the teacher to see to it--systematically, if necessary--that new students get library cards and know how to use them.

Contemporary language teaching emphasizes experiential, communicative language use in practical contexts. The exercise of applying for a library card fits these criteria and is likely to be embraced by your instructor, who might even be inspired to build a lesson around the procedure.

More on ESL and ABE . . . and ENNL, and ESP . . .

Yes, if you enjoy arcane abbreviations, you'll love reading about adult education. But eminently sensible and useful scholarly writing does exist, and it can give you a good grounding in the practical and philosophical issues surrounding such instruction. One good starting place is Public Libraries and Community-Based Education4, yours free from the U.S. Department of Education. Marianne Celce-Murcia's book, Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language5 includes good articles by Sharon Hilles and Dr. Mary McGroarty with insights regarding what attracts adults to night language classes. And of course, anything by Paulo Freire will reaffirm your bedrock belief in the value of grassroots language and literacy instruction.


1Use of Public Library Services by Households in the United States: 1996 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Publ. # NCES 97-446, March 1997, p. 7 Return to text

2Of course no animals were harmed in the making of PLUS, the website that endorses the sportfishing practice of catch, coddle, apologize, and release. Return to text

3Answer: On the order of one to two percent! [Ibid, p. 9] The good Professor Herbert Baxter Adams is, one can only imagine, twirling in his grave. Return to text

4Humes, Barbara A. et al.: Public Libraries and Community-Based Education, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Publ. #PE 96-8015, March 1996

5Celce-Murcia, Marianne (1991). Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language. New York: Newbury House. Hilles's article begins on p. 402, and McGroarty's on p. 372.

1999 Bruce Jensen, who welcomes your comments

To share your thoughts about this article or any other in PLUS, send email to flaco@sol-plus.net


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