ESL Students Teach As Well As Learn


Babak Ravandi explains a word problem to Amy Ciancioll at the Newport Community Learning Center. The teamwork helps Ravandi improve his English while Cianioll improves her math skills.

The Community Learning Centers of Northeast Kingdom Learning Services have been teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to students from around the world for many years, but a recent influx of such students in both St. Johnsbury and Newport has created a unique environment where the question has to be, "who is teaching whom?"

"It's great exposure to other cultures," Tom Barth, St. Johnsbury Community Learning Center manager said. St. Johnsbury's ESL population has spiked recently with five recent additions for an estimated 15 ESL student total.

"I've encouraged some students to speak at area schools about their cultures and world religions," Barth said. He explained the newer students come from Honduras, China, Nepal and Iran and include one who is a Spanish teacher and another who was a medical doctor and a published poet in his home country.

"They're very motivated. Some come to classes that our tutor Ann Stevens runs on Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays and flexible hours on Sundays. Two of them also come in for additional support during other hours," Barth said.

Markus Vogt, the Newport Community Learning Center manager said he also finds the recent influx of ESL students interesting and refreshing. He has a unique perspective since Vogt was a native of Germany and settled in the United States as an immigrant himself some years ago. He has taught German to English speakers, so being around and teaching foreign languages -- understanding how that learning takes place -- is very familiar to him both as a student and as an educator.

The Newport learning center has seen the usual one or two ESL students per year grow in the last couple of months to seven. These students also hail from various places including Iran and Mexico.

"We have a very consistent ESL student from Iran who is now taking a course at the Upper Valley Education Institute for teacher training," Vogt said. The student, Babak Ravandi, was a civil engineer in Iran and moved to the US in 2011. He spent nine months in California with friends who helped him get his driver's license then moved to Vermont in October of that year. By 2012 he discovered and signed up with NEKLS to work on his English.

While working on his English, it became clear to the staff that Babak is exceptional in math and thought having him tutor would not only help other students but would also give him the chance to practice speaking English. The arrangement is working. It's working so well Kavandi is hoping to become a physics and mathematics teacher in the future.

One of Kavandi's math students is Amy Ciancioll. "She's my student and my teacher!" Kavandi laughed. Ciancioll nodded in agreement. "He's a great teacher."

Each of the ESL students has their own reasons for coming to Vermont from their different corners of the globe, but it often centers around the quality of life they see here.

"I like Vermont. It's so beautiful, and it's so calm. The people here seem more 'real.' They're growing their own vegetables -- they're fishing. They have a connection to what's real," Kavandi said with reverence. "In Iran I was always in big cities. This is a good place. People are friendly to me and helpful. The culture is very different, and I need to follow the rules here and learn how things go. I had one family invite me to their home for Thanksgiving dinner so I could learn the tradition."

Whatever the reasons for coming to Vermont, Barth and Vogt see the increase in ESL students as a huge positive. "It adds something to our learning center," Vogt said. "I'm glad it's happened."

For more information on NEKLS, call 1-844-GONEKLS.


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