Classes that Level the Playing Field

March 27, 2007

As Lead Instructor in BMCC’s Adult Basic Education Program, Solange Farina oversees a roster of General Equivalency Diploma (GED) and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes – both on campus, and in a number of community settings. It’s a role that is shaped by her conviction that continuing education is a right, not a luxury.

“There are many reasons why individuals are initially prevented from completing their education, including poverty, political suppression in their home countries, and personal circumstances,” says Farina, who joined BMCC in 2005. “Whatever the cause, they wind up being marginalized – and that affects not only them, but society as a whole.”

Improving the learning experienceA 20-year veteran in the adult education field, Farina says the best part of her job is “having the chance to work directly with GED and ESL instructors and co-teach with them.” Following each class, she will meet with the instructor for a debriefing session: “We discuss the instructional decisions we made in the classroom and consider ways to improve the learning experience for students.”

The population served by BMCC’s ESL programs encompasses a broad array of age groups, demographics, educational levels and cultural backgrounds; most ESL students are foreign-born and many show up for their first class with little knowledge of English. “From a teacher’s perspective, that diversity can be a challenge,” says Farina. “But it makes the teaching experience endlessly fascinating.”

ESL classes take place on campus, and at satellite locations in Chinatown, Washington Heights, Harlem and on the Lower East Side. Generally speaking, ESL provides students with a way of fitting in more easily with the community, says Farina. But often, they have more specific goals – to qualify for a better job or even help their own children acclimate more smoothly to U.S. life. In fact, Farina is currently collaborating with a Rutgers University professor on a study on how participation in a continuing education program impacts adults’ ability to help their own children learning more efficiently.

A range of practical benefits“Ultimately, what all ESL students hope to take away is across-the-board competency in English – reading, writing speaking and understanding,” says Farina. Apart from the enhanced self-confidence that brings, students gain many practical benefits – an ability to shop, bank, work at jobs more efficiently, and communicate with their children’s teachers.

In contrast to their ESL counterparts, GED students are predominantly U.S.-born, although they include advanced ESL students for whom oral fluency may be less of an issue than reading and writing. “In particular, we get a lot of young people who have been pushed out of the education system because of failing grades but who want desperately to continue their education,” says Farina.

Since 1995, Farina has been a leading member of the New York City Math Exchange Group, a teacher collaborative that presents workshops that promote the teaching of math in a richer, more meaningful way. She also organizes and presents math and literacy workshops at local, national and international math conferences.

In practical terms, continuing education provides individuals with a bridge to a better life, “and impacts every level of society,” Farina says. “In essence, it’s a civil rights issue.”

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