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Learning English and Computer Repair in One Unique Class

January 8, 2010

“New York City is a city of immigrants,” says Denise Deagan, Director of Adult Basic Education in BMCC’s Department of Continuing Education and Workforce Development.  In fact, according to the New York City Department of City Planning, 46 percent of NYC’s total eight million residents speak a language other than English at home, and immigrants comprise 43 percent of the City’s labor force.

That is, if they can get work. And even if they do, it’s likely to be in the retail or fast food sectors, which don’t provide a living wage.

Deagan, and others, are hoping to change that.  With funding from the New York State Education Department (NYSED), she created an innovative class at BMCC that accelerates the acquisition of employable skills for non-English speakers, by combining instruction for English language learners (ELLs) with computer repair training that leads to industry-recognized, A+ certification and entry-level jobs often starting at $20 per hour.  

Meeting challenges with a unique approach
The new class, ELLA+, is designed along the lines of the highly touted Integrated Basic Education Skills Training or I-BEST model funded now in adult education programs across the country. Tom Orsini, NYSED’s Director of Adult Education and Workforce Development, recently visited BMCC’s ELLA+ class, in Continuing Ed’s newly renovated facilities at 25 Broadway, to watch it in action.

“I know there are challenges,” says Orsini, “but I think this is what we have to do with our ESL [English as a Second Language] population—we have to open these kinds of doors for them, in order for them to have family-sustaining jobs and career opportunities.”

Deagan paired two instructors, John LaFortune, who has worked in information technology (IT), and is certified in several levels of computer repair, and Jessie Wolvek, a seasoned instructor with a Masters in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Language (TESOL) degree, who happens to have taken A+ certification training herself. 

The shared lesson planning and collaborative classroom approach of these two instructors is key to their students’ success.  Both LaFortune and Wolvek are in the room at the same time, which buzzes with English pronunciation and conversation practice while students gather around PCs to unscrew the casings and identify and handle components inside.

A hands-on, language-rich environment
The night before Orsini visited the ELLA+ class, students drew and labeled their home computers, and now they’re comparing their drawings to the PCs in class. 

“This is exactly how I started, when I came into the field,” says LaFortune, who began his IT career with A+ certification.  “We’re teaching a little theory and at the same time, we’re doing a hands-on activity.  You can read a book and understand it, but until you actually do it, you’re not going to pick it up.”

While many English language classes use “manipulatives,” or materials from the “real world” to stimulate conversation practice, the visceral presence of content—computer hardware, cables and accessories strewn around the ELLA+ classroom—creates a learning environment charged with a very targeted goal.

“We do go over idioms and expressions, but a lot of this stuff is very oriented to learning the A+ topics,” says Wolvek.  “I think the students get a real sense of gratification that they’ve accomplished something very tangible that will help them get job, and a job that has growth potential.” 

Two instructors, supporting students and each other
Wolvek, though not entirely new to A+ language and concepts, sometimes learns along with her students, modeling the collaborative and problem-solving skills they’ll need in today’s complicated IT workplace. 

“I feel I’m much more effective teaching the students because I have an amazing resource in having John [the tech instructor] here,” Wolvek says.

“To carry on two mutually exclusive lessons, one ESL and one tech lesson, would be a mistake.  The two teachers should dovetail in almost everything, and that’s worked great for us.  One teacher takes the lead in each lesson, but the other is always there supporting it.”

The bottom line: A better job
While the new class is going well, as indicated by student engagement and their completion of tasks, the real measure of success will be in what happens once it ends: Will students pass the online A+ exam, with its idiomatic question construction, profusion of tech jargon and maddening, multi-choice language conventions (“which is least likely to…,” “which is most likely to…”)? 

And once the test is passed, will they find employment on a company’s Help Desk, or repairing computers in a corporation, school or other setting?

According to the New York State Department of Labor, New York City’s unemployment rate was 10.3 percent in October 2009, and recently, Dice, a major online industry publication, announced its IT job postings for the City dropped this year by 45 percent. 

On the other hand, looking at the industry over a longer period of time, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment of computer support specialists is expected to increase by 18 percent from 2006 to 2016.

The new tech workforce: A global phenomenon
The ELLA+ students, who moved to New York from the Dominican Republic, Cote d’Ivorie, Haiti, China, Russia, Vietnam, Brazil and other countries, seem optimistic.  “Is cache memory dynamic or static?” Wolvek asks the class, and several call out, “Static!”

Though needing English support, many of the students have high school or college degrees from their home countries, and held computer-related jobs outside the United States.  Like most young immigrants, the absorption of American culture shows up in their references and slang, and provides a common ground that overrides cultural differences.  Breaking into two teams, the “Power Rangers,” and “Never Give Up,” they play a vocabulary game, giving each other high-fives for correctly defined terms.

The ELLA+ class is being carefully watched.  Students are called at home when they’re absent, and counselors are available to advise on study habits and other issues.  While Tom Orsini evaluates job placement rates and language testing outcomes, and Denise Deagan assesses student learning—adjusting class design and putting supports in place—the students install USB ports, upgrade memory boards, configure operating systems, quiz each other on new terms, and keep their eyes on a better future.

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