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Learning the language of survival: English lessons through civic engagement at the Free Library

The class at the Lillian Marrero branch teaches language crucial to everyday life: How to read a utility bill, shop for groceries, or describe an ailment to a doctor.

Anne Pyzocha works with a student during an English class at the Lillian Marrero branch of the Free Library. Pyzocha teaches native-Spanish speaking adult students the vocabulary and grammar needed to navigate their daily lives.
Anne Pyzocha works with a student during an English class at the Lillian Marrero branch of the Free Library. Pyzocha teaches native-Spanish speaking adult students the vocabulary and grammar needed to navigate their daily lives.Read more--- Jessica Griffin / Staff Photographer

Carmen Cancel often left her doctors’ visits feeling unsatisfied and misunderstood, despite having a medical interpreter.

Cancel, a native Spanish speaker, just wanted to talk directly with the physicians who care for her spine, without the middleman.

“I want to have a conversation with them, not have someone speak for me,” Cancel, 56, said in Spanish. Then, “I could tell them what I am feeling.”

About a year ago, Cancel began adult English classes at a local nonprofit. But it wasn’t until she joined the Free Library’s English for Civic Engagement class a month ago that she grew confident enough to speak English.

“This course is giving me the confidence I needed to be able to talk,” said Cancel, of Fairhill. “This is what I was missing.”

The first of its kind, the eight-week class is offered only through the Lillian Marrero Branch in North Philadelphia. It teaches adult students the phrases, vocabulary, and grammar needed to navigate daily experiences through a curriculum tailored to individual needs and robust discussions, mostly in English, about community issues.

It breaks with the more traditional English as a Second Language (ESL) classes offered at branches across the city, and instead embraces a curriculum shaped by its students.

“Students are bigger stakeholders in what they get to learn,” said Anne Pyzocha, the class instructor. “Many adult ESL programs have a textbook that they have to follow, or a set curriculum they have to follow, whereas in these classes we’re asking the students up front: What do you want to learn about?”

Pyzocha opens each new class with a five-question needs analysis. Then, based on student responses, she creates learning objectives and builds the curriculum. In class, students learn English phrases and vocabulary for civic processes, but also discuss issues plaguing their neighborhoods, such as underfunded schools and libraries. Each class averages about 10 students, she said.

For a handful of students, the class has been a catalyst to join the grassroots campaign advocating for additional library funding — #FundOurLibraries. Soon, newer students will discuss candidate platforms in upcoming local elections, she said.

“They’re coming to our classes specifically to learn how to interact in the community,” said Pyzocha.

In 2017, Marrero, at Sixth Street and Lehigh Avenue, became a “natural first destination” for hundreds of new Puerto Rican residents who relocated to the city after being displaced by Hurricane Maria, said Tania-María Ríos Marrero, a native Spanish speaker and community organizer with the nonprofit Free Library Foundation, which raises money for the library. English literacy quickly became one of the “loudest needs” at the branch, she said.

“People came there looking not only for help on the computer, with their FEMA application, but they were also looking for English classes,” Marrero said.

So, she and Kate Goodman, another Foundation organizer, held community focus groups and conversations, then built a curriculum outline.

Now, a year and three eight-week classes later, it’s become a refuge for new arrivals and longtime Philadelphia Latinos; a wrecking ball to break down the language barrier.

It’s become a way for the library to partner with migrant communities to create pathways for their integration, resettlement, and engagement in Philadelphia, Marrero said.

At times, Philadelphia native and newer migrant Latinos “tend to be very marginalized, isolated and cut off from the rest of Philadelphia,” Marrero said.

That’s why in heavily Latino-populated areas of the city,, “the role of libraries and literacy in these communities cannot be understated,” she said. At the library, people “at once become connected with a space that is safe, free, accessible, and responsive to them.”

And the needs are clear. Forty-four percent of Philadelphia Hispanic households speak English “less than very well,” according to census data.

When Monica Perez moved to North Philadelphia from Mexico City three years ago, she immediately learned how crucial it was to know English. Tasks like grocery shopping or doctors’ visits were daunting.

Traditional English language classes, she said, didn’t always teach the words she needed.

That’s why when she learned about a free class at Marrero, a few blocks from her home, she was sold.

"If I’m living here, I have to learn [English],” Perez said.