My Internship with LearningWorks

Written by: Bronwyn Caswell-Riday

            Over the summer, I had the opportunity to intern with LearningWorks, a non-profit in Portland, Maine, dedicated to providing free community-based education programs for children and adults. I was working with their English Language+Literacy program, which focuses on teaching English language skills to immigrants and refugees in the community through one-on-one tutoring and conversation classes. I acted as an assistant teacher for summer conversation classes at the beginner and intermediate levels, helping to create a curriculum, write lesson plans, and actively teach students in the classroom.

            This internship allowed me an opportunity to both demonstrate and practice the skills I have acquired through my linguistics and anthropology majors. This knowledge was especially helpful when considering how a diverse group of students learn another language, as well as how students may think about language, what they expect from a language-learning classroom, and what factors outside of language may influence or impede their ability to learn. Anthropology has largely taught me to think outside of the box, seek creative solutions, and look for answers in places you wouldn’t think to find them. While teaching to a diverse and variable group of students, it was crucial for me to keep a mind so open the breeze could blow through, and be flexible and clever enough to formulate last-minute lessons that would be both relevant and beneficial to the students who happened to be there that day.

            Anthropology has also provided a framework for thought that has helped me to remain self-reflexive and critically engaged with how I interact with students and how I behave in the classroom more broadly. These qualities are crucial for a teacher, especially one who teaches to a diverse body of students. Being able to reflect upon and analyze myself, my positionality, and my own biases helped me to teach more effectively to students by allowing me to see where I might be hurting or hindering them in their learning and growth. My anthropological training helped me to understand and accept cultural differences, but also how to identify them. What some may consider to be rude or tactless may just be a matter of cultural norms, and the ability to identify these norms and then include them in a lesson proved valuable. For example, in our shopping unit, I discussed haggling with my students, what the cultural norms around it are in their countries, and where and when it is appropriate to haggle when shopping in America.

            Discussing these cultural differences explicitly and encouraging students to share their own language and culture in the classroom was one way I tried to combat undertones of colonialism and linguistic imperialism. While I wanted to help students improve their English, I also wanted to help them preserve their language and culture, reinforcing its importance while helping them to navigate and assimilate to American culture. Thanks to anthropology, I am very conscious of the power English has in the US and in the global sphere, and I wanted to make sure I fought against the narrative that to be American, they had to abandon all their languages and practices. Unfortunately, this is a belief that has become widespread, or at least more confidently shared, over the last few years.

            While I assumed this internship would be politically involved, it was political in ways I did not fully anticipate or expect. There were numerous times we discussed ICE in class or I had to explain infographics or pamphlets given to students about what to do if they were approached by immigration officers. We had many discussions about lawyers and presidents and corrupt governments, all of which I expected to be par for the course when working with new Mainers. What I didn’t expect was the reactions I would get from friends and acquaintances, how eager they were to share uninformed opinions and chuckle over xenophobic remarks. What was missing from all these discussions was how incredibly kind these students are, how much they value family and faith and community. What is missing in the minds of many are the universals.

            Anthropology may tend to look at how cultures across the world differ, but I think it’s also pretty good at showing us the things that are the same, the things that are important to everyone and the things that don’t change. After just one class with any of my students, it was so blatantly obvious to me how much we had in common, how much we all have in common. I would hope these similarities would be obvious to anyone else who spent just a little time with them, too. These people value family and love to make new friends, they value their faith and a sense of community. They want to love and be loved, they want to find where they fit in and they want to be accepted. This all starts with something I had the privilege of sharing countless times over the summer, and something I intend to continue to share after I leave UVM: a cup of tea, an open mind, and a good conversation.

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