We join the American Library Association during National Library Week celebrating the work of libraries across our country to provide uncensored access to information and resources. The theme for 2023 is There’s More to the Story. The Mandel Public Library, a ProLiteracy member program, has given ESOL learners a chance to share their stories.
Four years ago, after years of providing childhood literacy services, the Mandel Public Library started an ESOL program for the adult English language learners in its community—a great example of how libraries are uniquely positioned to meet the needs of the communities they serve.
While there are other adult education programs in the West Palm Beach area that provide ESOL services, librarian Tara Moreno said the library, supported by its partnership with AmeriCorps, saw an opportunity to provide the service for free.
“The library is paid for. If you’re living here, it’s paid for,” she said. “In public adult education [classes], they don’t charge much, but they do charge some.”
The initial idea was that an AmeriCorps member at the library would serve as the tutor, and Moreno would figure out the operational details of the program.
“I loved the idea,” she said. “I speak Spanish as a second language, and I was a Spanish language teacher in public school in my previous life. I love language teaching, and this was like the other side of the coin.”
So, like all good librarians, she started digging to find the information they needed to serve the non-English speakers in their community. She visited and observed other programs and got the program rolling.
Since that first year, the program has continued to grow and improve.
“Everything I know, I learn from other providers. I just reinvent the wheel,” Moreno said.
Now, Mandel’s ESOL program has four tutors: a new AmeriCorp member, Moreno, a library associate with 20 years of ESOL experience, and a fourth instructor who drives the Mandel Mobile van to Esperanza Community Center. They visit that local day labor center to provide lessons to immigrants who gather there to find work and receive social services.
As the program has grown, Moreno has embraced the opportunity to provide the best experience for the students, always looking for ways to learn and always listening to others working in the field. At the Florida Literacy Conference in 2021, a lightbulb went off as she attended a presentation led by the Santa Clara City Library in California about a collection of easy readers they created for adult new readers.
Later, she heard a presentation at the same conference by ValueUSA about adult learners and them using their voice.
Her thoughts started to form.
She thought about how the Florida Literacy Coalition does an essay writing contest every year with adult learners and compiles those into a printed book.
Then when the Esperanza Center held a women’s empowerment photo project on finding your own voice and expressing it, Moreno gave them exhibition space in the library. Each participant shared a photo of themselves being a strong woman and wrote a caption sharing their story.
Moreno started piecing things together and contacted the folks from the Santa Clara City Library to ask how their project worked and for some tips to help her own students create something similar.
“It’s just powerful when you get yourself printed,” Moreno said. “When you’re in publication, you know, that’s just something.”
She wanted to give her students that. What resulted is Our Own Authors. Moreno asked students in the intermediate ESOL class to write about a life event, no matter how big or small.
The example Moreno created was about a shopping trip with her daughter to the local Publix grocery store. In the story, they buy the ingredients to make tacos for themselves and their dog and included pictures.
The students got the idea and wrote about visits with family members who came to Palm Beach, a dog’s trip to the green market, and even a fantastical story about one learner’s childhood.
“In fact, the one book about the dog that went to the green market, that might be the only picture book written about our downtown West Palm Beach,” Moreno said. “So, [this project is] a unique thing.”
Moreno gave each student a printed copy of their books, but she has also added them to the library’s collection for circulation within the public. Moreno displays them on the front desk.
Knowing their stories would be in the collection, accessible to everyone, was part of the reason students wanted to write, Moreno said.
“The library is in a unique position to provide that platform,” she said. “The library is an awesome place to work. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything special, but I get to be part of something special.”
The students are already asking when they will get to write their next book. Moreno thinks she’ll have them write fiction next.
Learn more about National Library Week: https://www.ala.org/conferencesevents/celebrationweeks/natlibraryweek
Photos are courtesy of the Mandel Public Library.